Geographers create unique wayfinding tool for game day safety

Collaboration with University Police and Public Safety yields tailgate grid map

Nick Giacobe, left, is an assistant teaching professor of information sciences and technology who also volunteers with the Office of Emergency Management to assist in adopting new technologies. He and Justin Frear, campus recreation coordinator for competitive sports, use the large tailgate grid map to direct first responders to an emergency situation. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When fans are tailgating before a Penn State home football game, they are standing on an invisible safety grid that helps first responders to pinpoint any location within more than 1,900 acres of pastures and paved lots.

Thanks to a new coordinate grid system developed by Penn State geographers, Penn State University Police and Public Safety and State College police, any 12.5-yard square location can be efficiently communicated to first responders by use of a simple alphanumeric code. The grid overlays a series of maps of the parking lots that surround Beaver Stadium and were compiled into a booklet.

Having the grid-map booklets helped police and emergency medical personnel locate and respond to several emergencies this football season, said Pam Soule, emergency management coordinator with University Police and Public Safety.

“Mapping is a powerful tool to visualize a situation,” she said.

Creating custom grid maps

Associate Teaching Professor Fritz Kessler and undergraduate student Hope Bodenschatz in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences developed the grid system and custom maps with University Police and Public Safety over the summer.

“The new grid maps address two challenges we have been dealing with,” Soule said.

First, the University Park campus — including Beaver stadium — is not oriented to cardinal north-south, so using a conventional coordinate system aligned north-south to refer to the locations in the parking areas does not work. Second, many emergency responders from outside agencies, not familiar with campus, work on game day to support public safety, she said.

“We have many officers and emergency medical personnel from outside agencies who work during the home football games, including Pennsylvania State Police, and the specific individuals assisting from those agencies change week to week,” said University Police Lt. Matthew Cover. “Because fans are spread out over a vast outdoor area, a grid system seemed like the ideal way to identify emergency locations quickly.”

“We can park roughly 27,000 cars in the pastures and paved lots,” Soule said. “The average is 3.4 individuals per car, so we figure there are over 100,000 people out there.”

So far, Cover and Soule said the new maps have been useful.

“The grid system simplifies things,” Cover said. “There is a training curve, but once you get the hang of it, it’s simple to use. Each map has a key for how to read the coordinates.”

The new grid-coordinate maps, printed by the Engineering Copy Center, were delivered to University Police and Public Safety the week before the first home football game. Foot, bicycle and ATV patrols all received pocket-sized map flipbooks. Large-scale versions are wall-mounted in several key locations, including the Centre County Emergency Communications Center, so they can translate the coordinates to direct in outside help when needed.

A historical solution

University Police and Public Safety realized about two years ago that a better wayfinding tool for game day was needed, but the solution Kessler came up with is based on the German Naval grid system used during World War II.

In fall 2016, Kessler received an email question about how to develop a local geographic grid system.

“I get questions like this all the time, so after I responded I didn’t think about it anymore. It’s an esoteric aspect of cartography,” he said.

Then about a year later, Soule contacted him about a mapping project.

“She explained that first responders need to quickly identify and get to a specific area,” Kessler said. “Cell phones were not useful in this situation because the system is often overloaded on game day and communicating GPS coordinates over the radio can be time consuming and complicated.”

Kessler realized that the police needed a coordinate grid system that did not rely on latitude or longitude and that could be used to identify a precise location and communicate it efficiently. Using the Office of Physical Plant’s base campus maps, he and Bodenschatz created nested 50-yard, 25-yard and 12.5-yard grids that allow someone to communicate location efficiently with a short unique alphanumeric code identifying each grid cell.

Once the type of map and the alignment — the grid aligns to Beaver Stadium serving as the compass indicating Penn State north — were set, there were many details to work out in the design of the map.

“The biggest obstacle was balancing intricate detail without sacrificing ease of use,” Bodenschatz said, adding, “Many of the parking areas are irregular shapes, plus there are trees, buildings and various surfaces like grass and pavement.”

Bodenschatz and Kessler used ArcMap to test different grid arrangements, scales, colors, shading and line thicknesses, sharing versions with Soule and Cover for their feedback and refinements through summer 2018.

“It was great to see the final product and see how useful it was,” Bodenschatz said. “I’m glad to have had a hand in contributing to it.”

“The coolest part is all the collaboration and how we worked together,” Soule said.

The project team sees the fall 2018 grid map as just the trial version. Bodenschatz and Kessler said they are already thinking about ways to enhance the map and looking forward to feedback from the users.

“It’s working pretty well,” Cover said. “We asked officers who use it to make comments and suggestions. It will be one of the topics of the after-action meeting we hold after football season is over.”

Last Updated September 22, 2020