Swift Support

Volunteers of the Civil Air Patrol gather and analyze geospatial data to assist FEMA.


When disaster strikes, many groups step up to get a handle on the situation. One of the first governmental agencies activated for large disasters is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But there are many other organizations that play a part in effectuating a swift response. One of these is Civil Air Patrol (CAP).

Established in December 1941 as a cadre of civilian volunteer aviators organized for national defense, Civil Air Patrol played an important role after the U.S. entered World War II. Pilots patrolled the coasts to watch for and deter enemy submarines that were harassing the U.S. merchant fleet. According to the organization’s history page, CAP’s “success in thwarting submarine attacks and safeguarding shipping lanes led President Franklin D. Roosevelt [to transfer] CAP from the Office of Civilian Defense to the Department of War.”

Some 80 years later, CAP is still a critical civilian force and officially serves as the U.S. Air Force auxiliary. Operating under congressional charter, CAP’s three main programs are cadet programs, aerospace education and emergency services (including search and rescue, disaster relief, homeland security and drug interdiction). It’s in this last functional area that CAP has been able to bring highly effective geospatial competencies to bear.

“We’ve been flying airborne photographers for years. We’ve been in the back of the aircraft taking pictures for FEMA after disasters and other events,” said Capt. Scott Kaplan, National Program Manager for the CAP Geospatial Program, Civil Air Patrol, who also serves as Senior Advisor to the Chairman, Civil Applications Committee, United States Geological Survey.

“We now have very highly specialized imaging sensors that we can attach to our aircraft, including one camera which has 3D imaging capability. [We are capturing] extremely high-resolution imagery, have aircraft with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensors, and we’ve flown light detection and ranging (LiDAR) and other high-capability sensors. This is not really your grandparents’ CAP anymore.”

As Kaplan points out, this range of technology and capabilities makes CAP an invaluable remote sensing source for our emergency management partners and the U.S. Air Force.

According to Kaplan, the CAP Geospatial Program has three primary goals. “The first one is to help augment FEMA, states and other agencies in times of natural disaster with trained GIS specialists—specifically CAP members. The second one is to use GIS technologies to help CAP better understand its business operations by visualizing our own resources, and enabling us to be more affective as an organization, and during emergency service missions. And then the third is to provide a whole new career path for our cadets into the geospatial fields.”

“Over the past few years, we’ve been involved in multiple different disaster events,” Kaplan said. “Leveraging the geospatial team, we supported [FEMA with] the Puerto Rico earthquake and Hurricanes Dorian, Imelda and Hannah. We did high-watermark collection in Texas after their hurricanes and tropical storms. We are using everything from airborne remote sensing devices to handheld imagery using apps on your phone.”

Path of tornado damage in Mayfield, Kentucky, from the FEMA damage assessment tool. Imagery courtesy of GIC/Vexel.

In August 2021, CAP was able to leverage its geospatial team again, by crowdsourcing imagery analysis around Hurricane Ida’s impact on Louisiana. As Kaplan described it, FEMA reached out to CAP to ask for its assistance in evaluating and categorizing structural damage.

“We put the call out, and 760 people signed up. At the end of the day, we had 327 people assessing the imagery—and that’s everything from doing one to tens of thousands of assessments depending on the person—from 39 states,” Kaplan said. “Assessing the damage based on FEMA’s standards, I had 10 teams—two of those teams were led by cadets, 12- to 18-year-olds—and adult members involved in the disaster response. It took less than a week to set up, and at the end of the second week, we had assessed 196,712 polygons for damage.”

Months later, just after tornadoes skipped across four states and devastated western Kentucky on December 10, CAP planes flew sorties to capture imagery for FEMA, providing support for the new disaster. Using FEMA’s damage assessment tool, 30 CAP volunteers from 15 states took part in the analysis effort.

“That’s two major disasters with that level of impact within six months of each other,” Kaplan said. “It’s setting the stage for us to do more of this in the future with larger numbers of members supporting. The great thing is that we’re getting people from across the country  who normally would not have the ability to get involved in a disaster response because they don’t live somewhere where, more often than not, a major natural disaster hits, but with this new capability they can get involved. This gives them an opportunity to help and serve.”

Feature image: A flag blows in the wind in downtown Mayfield, Kentucky, where a tornado ravished the town on Dec. 10, 2021. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • Learn more about the Civil Air Patrol‘s geospatial capabilities and how you can volunteer!

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