Pictometry: Aerial Photography for the Fire Service

By Jack Parow

Imagine being able to view four sides of every building in your community as if you were circling them in a low-flying helicopter. Now you can. Pictometry, a company located in Rochester, New York, has developed a visual intelligence system that uses aerial photography imaging to capture, process, and analyze orthogonal (straight down) and oblique (taken from angles) images to create an aerial “3-D map” of a given area or location. By using this type of system to gather images, the users can view and examine any structure, intersection, fire hydrant, or physical feature in a selected area. This is a tremendous improvement over the conventional 2-D maps or satellite straight-down images that are in use today.

This technology will enhance a fire department’s capabilities in the areas of disasters, counterterrorism, planning and response, emergency response, hazardous materials, structure assessment, and 9-1-1 dispatch. For example, when this technology is used in conjunction with a 9-1-1 dispatch system, the dispatcher will be able to view the location that the reporting party is calling from. This information can then be sent to responding companies in just seconds and provides them with a visual view of where they are heading and what obstacles they may encounter before leaving the station or while in route.

Pictometry is a great tool for planning purposes when setting up perimeters, looking for hydrant locations, evacuations, and so on. Pictometry proved to be a valuable tool during and after the September 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon. Arlington (VA) Fire De-partment officials used pictometry images that were taken before and after the crash to coordinate their efforts in the days after the incident. By comparing the before and after pictures, they were able to tell the true extent of the damage and plan accordingly. Additionally, they were able to print out hard copy pictures of the incident scene and distribute them to responding agencies, enabling them to orient themselves within this large incident scene. New York City also used pictometry after the WTC incident to document the extent of damage and to assist in planning the cleanup efforts.

Photos courtesy of Pictometry International Corp., Rochester, New York.

Satellite image photography enables the user to view only the tops of buildings. This can be very useful if operations are restricted to the rooftops. However, pictometry is able to capture every feature in its entirety, allowing users to see the sides of these buildings right down to the street level. This type of imagery allows the user to view the building just as the arriving companies will see it. Emergency agencies can coordinate and communicate much more effectively when they are all viewing the same information. A view of an area or structure can now be made from a computer screen, allowing agencies to plan and respond more accurately. This can all be done from a remote and safe location.


Images are captured with a camera-equipped Cessna 172 light aircraft. Pictures are usually taken when the leaves are off the trees and without snow on the ground. The area being photographed is broken down into one-square-mile sectors, called community sectors. Images in the community sector are captured from three views, one straight down and two at a 40-degree angle from approximately 4,000 feet. The angle shots are typically taken from north to south and again from east to west. The community sector is then further broken down into 50 subsectors known as neighborhoods, each approximately 750 feet square. Further images are taken of the neighborhoods from two opposing views, typically west to east and east to west from distances as low as 2,000 feet. After the community and neighborhood images have been taken, every square foot of the city or town will have been covered. Because many of the images overlap, most structures or physical areas are covered by 12 different views. The full-color, high-resolution digital images are updated every two years and stored in software libraries called Electronic Field Study (EFS). Once enhanced by EFS, these images allow the user to view locations, add annotations, and make measurements.


The images can be accessed in two ways. You can simply enter an address. In seconds, all pictures of that location will be displayed (typically 12) as thumbnails on the side of the screen. Or, you can go to a grid map and click on an area you want to view; again, thumbnails of that area appear. By double clicking on the thumbnail you want, the picture will become full size. You can use the zoom feature to further enhance the image.


The software has a number of additional tools that can be used to enhance the view.

The distance tool allows the user to measure anything in the image. For example, a firefighter could measure the distance from various fire hydrants to a burning structure to determine which hydrant is closer.



The radius tool enables a hazardous-materials team to set up an evacuation area and know which buildings are located within that area. The height of any object in the picture can be measured—a building, telephone poles, a fence.

The location tool allows the user to click any location on an image and get the GPS coordinates. This is very handy for determining helicopter landing zones and great for water drops.

The annotation tool is one of the most important tools. It allows an agency to attach any information it wishes to a certain location. Special hazards or building information can be loaded into the system after an inspection is completed or when new and updated information is provided. This information can be retrieved later during an emergency or to conduct preplanning simply by entering the address or clicking on the building itself. Other information can also be included such as floor plans, images of the interior, directions to that location, and preplanning information.

Additionally, this system of images (EFS) can be used in conjunction with your city or town’s GPS mapping system because it is GPS-based. For example, the user would be able to overlay existing maps containing water or gas mains, electrical transmission lines, and so on directly onto the pictometry images being viewed. This feature would allow the user to view water main sizes or locate gas shutoffs in direct relation to the selected building or area instantly.


The cost of the system depends on the land area to be photographed, but is very reasonable. Arlington County, Virginia, for example, covers an area of 26 square miles with a population of 189,000. The system, which includes the software package (EFS) and aerial photography, costs the county $14,000. A 1-Ghz notebook PC with 256 MB of RAM and a 20-G hard drive satisfy hardware requirements. The Arlington County images actually use only 9-G of storage on the hard drive. By most accounts, this high-powered system is relatively inexpensive and requires only a minimal amount of hardware to operate. In addition and for no additional cost, this system can be utilized by any department in the county including local police, emergency management, community and planning department, and so on. When the cost is shared among various departments that can benefit from this information, it becomes even more reasonable.


There are many benefits to this technology. It will allow firefighters to view an area of interest on a computer screen long before their arrival on-scene. A command post could be set up miles away, and the incident commander (IC) would be able to view the same structure, along with its surroundings, that the fire companies are looking at. This bird’s eye view would further allow the IC to establish staging areas and access routes and gather valuable information about the structure—all from a safe distance.

We know how important it is to keep our command post and the top commanders at a safe distance during a major incident. This technology will allow ICs to set up at a greater distance from the incident scene and still feel connected with the operating companies. In addition, the annotation feature and a 3-D view of the building and its surrounding area will provide the IC with additional information.

Furthermore, pictometry is a great tool for preplanning. Since September 11, 2001, the fire service has been asked to evaluate high-risk targets, large assembly areas, water treatment plants, government buildings, and so on. With pictometry technology, all emergency agencies can gather in one room and preplan all aspects of these target hazards. The plan can then be attached to the target area or building using the annotation feature, making it available for later retrieval and use.

Pictometry may be as valuable and as common on the fireground as the command board, allowing ICs to better lead, prepare, and safeguard their personnel.

JACK PAROW is chief of the Chelmsford (MA) Fire Department. His fire service career spans 28 years, the past 11 as chief. A certified hazardous material technician and an EFO graduate, he has an associate’s degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering, and a master’s degree in business and policy studies. Parow is also a professor in fire science and management at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Massachusetts. He is a past president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of Massachusetts and the current vice president of the New England Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

With pictometry, you can…

  • Zoom in on specific features for detailed inspection.
  • View detailed structual features.
  • Measure the length, width, and height of any feature in the image.
  • Measure horizontal and vertical features as well as distances between points.
  • Use the annotation feature to access floor plans, preplanning information, and special hazards.
  • Obtain the coordinates for any point in the image.
  • Use with local GPS information maps.
  • View proximity to schools, shopping centers, highways, emergency facilities, and so on.

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