The GIS Lab in the UTK Geography department is host to a device called a SimTable that uses simulation modeling to visualize physical or social occurrences, like wildfires or floods, which could be of harm to the environment and people.
This technology is important for making risk assessments of hazards that involve awareness of geography for addressing possible responses to these hazards.
Michael Camponovo, the GIS Outreach program coordinator, explained that the SimTable is an augmented reality device that has two main components. There is a “real world,” which is the table of sand-like, crushed walnut shells where you form the topography by hand, and then there is the projected simulations that are digital projections of geographic and geospatial data on top.
The SimTable can simulate past fires and events that have been recorded, and display them over different maps. With this pre-existing data, you can adjust the variables of the environment and geography using the SimTable tools.
“The model actually uses a bunch of geospatial data to figure out where it thinks the fire is going to go. You take a bunch of these different inputs, and the software tries to estimate where it thinks it is going to go,” Camponovo said.
The SimTable depends upon human-technology interactions to give out customizable models, which can help emergency management teams with strategy planning.
Considering more to the interactive aspects of the SimTable, there are multiple inputs you can adjust to help apply more specific characteristics to hazardous situations. With wildfires, for example, you can alter the slope of the terrain, which affects the spreading speed of fire, or you can choose the type of vegetation the fire will spread on.
“From a firefighting or emergency management standpoint it not only takes those inputs into account ... You can control wind speed and direction,” Camponovo said. “The people that normally own this are local emergency managers, state natural hazard mitigation planners and individual fire stations.”
Camponovo emphasized how the use of the technology benefits the study of emergency response and training because of the different ways the inputs can be changed. The SimTable until recently has been used mostly in the context of emergency management, but the GIS Lab at UTK takes a more educational approach, with university students using the table for research and the GIS outreach program sharing the technology with local schools.
Liem Tran, a professor of Geography, commented on how the SimTable can be especially useful for including risk assessments of an area. Different areas might face higher risks of damage than others depending on the infrastructure and agencies present.
“Up to this point, because in the West there is often more access to WIFI than other places, agencies or universities often combine this kind of simulation with real-time data, and they can start the simulation right away to see how a fire might spread and see how to allocate the resources,” Tran said. “Here we don’t have that kind of high risk, but we can do simulations to see if a fire starts in the Smoky Mountains, how it might spread, etc.”
The data provided from the SimTable simulations can be used for raising awareness of risks associated with hazards and preparation purposes. The simulation cannot predict accurately, but it does let you look at the risks of the area.
Camponovo mentioned that not too far from here, the Pigeon Forge Fire Department has their own SimTable there. Kevin Nunn, a lieutenant of the Pigeon Forge Fire Department, uses this same piece of equipment and teaches other fire responders about wild land firefighting strategy.
“It is one of these tools, where it is one thing to think about in the abstract, and when you actually have the firefighters get around the table, they can look and see where their communities are, and they can actually model it in their communities,” Camponovo said. “It really helps people get a better understanding of where the risks are.”