Canadians Setting a Standard for Emergency Mapping

If you are into mapping emergencies, you will be interested to know that the Canadians have developed a national approach to Emergency Management Symbology (EMS)*.

The EMS is designed to be used by individual and multi-agency emergency mapping applications to facilitate interoperability and situational awareness.

Successful emergency response often starts with a map. The question of “where” is fundamental to instigating an effective response to an incident, the deployment of resources, the assessment of risks and the safety of the community. The symbols used to represent the location and type of incident or resources are critical to communication. The more recognizable the symbol, the faster its interpretation and the ability to make decisions based on it.  Critically, there may be dire consequences if symbols are misinterpreted.


In recent years, many have recognised the need to standardize the symbols used by emergency service organizations (ESOs) to minimize the risk of confusion when multiple agencies are involved in a response. The Americans kicked off this awareness with the development of their Symbology Standards by the Federal Geographic Data Committee's Homeland Security Working Group (HSWG). The HSWG Symbology Standards were launched in 2005 and caused a flurry of international attention as they were widely recognised as setting the benchmark.

The Canadian EMS includes a suite of unique point symbols, many of which are significantly influenced by the HSWG Symbology Standard. EMS symbols are classified into three categories: incidents and events; infrastructure and operations.  Under these three categories, there are 43 unique Tier 1 symbols that denote types of Incidents eg. Crime; Infrastructure such as Water Infrastructure, or Operational action eg. Emergency Fire Operation. These symbols are further classified in Tier 2 by over 235 symbols, not all unique. For example, a Fire hotspot is Tier 2, Fire is Tier 1 under the Incident Category.

The above image illustrates Canadian symbols for (Incident) Fire hotspots and (Operations) Emergency Staging Areas in comparison to equivalent symbols in HSWG Symbols standards.

Interestingly, whereas the HSWG used the shape of symbol to define a category ie all operational symbols were bordered by a circle, the Canadians have not used these basic shapes but instead use colours to indicate the domain of the symbol ie operations (red) or events that relate to weather (blue). However, they claim that colour is not necessary to recognize symbols as they each have a unique geometric shape. Although, how many shapes can one remember?

The colours and cartoon-like qualities of the Canadian symbols are designed to make the ‘symbols pop out (more strongly) in the viewer’s visual field’. If you consider that satellite and aerial imagery is often used to provide mapping context, you can understand the rationale for symbols that can be readily discerned from a very colour dense background.

So how does this relate to Australia? In 2007, Spatial Vision worked with the Intergovernmental Committee on Survey and Mapping (ICSM) to scope an approach to an Australasian All Hazards Symbology. As a result, a series of recommendations were made regarding the development of a framework for all hazard emergency management symbols that could be adopted by ESOs across Australia and New Zealand.

It was recommended the Australasian All Hazards Symbology (AAHS) be implemented: a taxonomy of three categories underpinned by two levels of symbols similar to the Canadians and also  derived from the HSWG. However, the AAHS utilised the HSWG shape outline so that symbols could be easily recognised by their primary category (ie Incident, Operations and Assets).

Importantly, the AAHS distinguished three broad categories of users involved in emergency management: strategic, tactical and operational (ie field level that often needs to be able to sketch and fax a mud map from the incident team on the fire line to the Incident Control Centre). The recommendations for the AAH included simple symbols that could be hand drawn by field operatives. Many of the Canadian or HSWG symbols are quite sophisticated and clearly not designed to be drawn by hand. In addition, the Australian ESO community loudly called for the symbol set to include line and areal features (for example, lines for the active edge of a fire, or an area to show the extent of a flood). In contrast, the Canadians recommend using point symbols to form a line or fill an area.

The AAHS also proposed denoting the status of an action/event (for example, whether a backburn was planned or completed) by using broken or solid lines. The Canadians have not incorporated status into their symbols.

Paradoxically, the key to the high profile of the HSWG Symbology Standard was their free availability via the HSWG website However, the Symbology Standard has now become a US national standards product, ANSI INCITS 415-2006 which limits availability to commercial arrangements. Many still use the free HSWG version, even if outdated. At this stage, the Canadians have made their symbols free to use subject to some basic copyright and attribution conditions.

Obviously, the benefits of a common approach, dare I say, a Standard, for emergency management symbols is indisputable. Mapping has become a fundamental tool for communication within and across ESOs and, increasingly, with the public. In Australia, EMSINA[1] and the National Spatial and Information Management (NSIM) Working Group have been actively developing the Australian approach to EM symbology and will be releasing their recommendations shortly. I look forward to seeing them widely adopted. The different approaches by the US, Canada and Australia indicate that we are a long way from a single international standard. However, in the not too distant future, when firefighters from New Zealand, USA and Canada come to assist us, they will only have to learn one set of symbols and not the widely differing symbols used by each Australian agency at present.

Graeme Martin
These comments are my opinion and do not necessarily represent Spatial Vision's strategies or opinions.
 *The Canadian EMS is available from

The EMS was developed in collaboration with a range of Canadian emergency management organisations and auspiced by GeoConnections.  GeoConnections ( is a national partnership program led by Natural Resources Canada.

[1] Emergency Management Spatial Information Network of Australia

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Graeme Martin

Graeme is passionate about devising solutions using geospatial information to assist people to make decisions. Graeme is Spatial Vision’s General Manager for Operations and still leads major consulting projects for customers.

For over 25 years Graeme has assisted a range of organisations with strategic advice, design of bespoke information systems, stakeholder engagement and skills transfer.

Graeme has worked across a range of sectors including international development assistance, emergency services, water utilities, natural resource management, commercial services and local government.

For any enquiries please contact us on 1300 36 67 96 or contact Graeme directly via email

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