First Responders and Crisis Map Symbols: Making Communication Clearer

Open Access
Akella, Mamata Kumari
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
Committee Members:
  • Cynthia Ann Brewer, Thesis Advisor
  • firefighters
  • open-ended testing
  • pictorial symbols
  • crisis maps
During the initial hours of a disaster, first responders enter chaotic, devastated areas to assess the situation and report multiple events to their command stations. After the tragedies of 9/11 in New York City, the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) Homeland Security Working Group (HSWG) proposed universal map symbols for use by all levels of emergency personnel. In 2006, the symbol set became an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard. For map use in a crisis situation, map elements have to be easily understood and interpreted at a glance. Therefore, universal symbol sets, especially ones that are meant to assist first responders in rescue efforts, should go through rigorous testing and evaluation methods. This study explores how human factors research and testing methods can be used by cartographers to improve the design and comprehension of pictorial map symbols. Using the ANSI recommended open-ended testing method; this study examines the comprehension level of the proposed FGDC HSWG Emergency and Hazard Management Mapping Standards point symbology. Open-ended testing was conducted with 50 firefighters in California using 15 symbols from the Incidents category and 13 symbols from the Operations category. The results of this research show that 22 of the 28 symbols tested did not achieve the 85% comprehension level necessary. This research also shows that the greater the ambiguity inherent in a symbolic representation of some real world event, the greater the variation in responses, the lower the comprehension score, and the greater the likelihood that decision making processes will be affected during emergency situations.