Frequently Asked Questions

This section contains a list of frequently asked questions about the Homeland Security Mapping Standard - Point Symbology for Emergency Management.

1) Who developed this standard?

This Symbology Standard was developed by the Federal Geographic Data Committee's Homeland Security Working Group (FGDC HSWG). From this group, a Symbology Subgroup with representatives from Federal, State, and local government worked to develop this Symbology standard and its usage. More information can be found at The standard is currently working its way through standards processes of ANSI and the Department of Homeland Security.

2) Does the Symbol Subgroup realize the symbols are difficult to read when small?

Different Symbols at Different SizesYes. You may find it preferable not to use this standard when doing mapping that covers a large area or involves a great number of symbols. The subgroup determined that local emergency managers and first responders were the most important users to design the symbols for. As a result, the symbols are best suited for the incident or community level. Sample maps can be viewed at the website.

The symbols have enough detail to make them intuitive for first responders and local emergency managers. Simpler, more abstract symbols might scale better to smaller sizes but they would be less intuitive.

3) Can I still try to use the symbols at smaller sizes?

One thing you might try is keeping the same shape as the standard symbol. At the point where the symbols become too crowded or become too small to recognize the symbol (about 10-12 point) the user may simply use the shape associated with the Category. “Incident” symbols are diamonds, “Infrastructure” symbols are rectangles, and “Operations” symbols are circles. The opaque shape can be labeled or colored as required. Also, Theme symbols (i.e. “Fire”) tend to be simpler than Feature symbols (i.e. “Wild Fire”) and can be used in place of them.

4) Why don't you use the Department of Transportation (DOT) hazardous material tag symbols?

D.O.T. Flammable Solid Symbol DOT's HAZMAT tag symbols are not scaleable - these tags are not legible on small maps or displays. Because of their specific meanings, DOT symbols will not likely be confused with this set of symbols for emergency management.

5) You use some of the Incident Command System symbols but not all of them. Why?

The ICS symbols are not a standard but in common usage among certain groups of the response community, primarily agencies involved in wildland fire fighting. They can be found in the Field Operations Guides (FOGs) of these groups. The common symbols are generally consistent between groups, but there are variations. For instance, the Coast Guard FOG contains some oil spill and wildlife symbols that the fire groups do not have.

Hospital SymbolThe ICS symbols in this standard that deviate from ICS practices are that way due to a guiding principal of the Symbol Subgroup: avoid numbers and letters in the symbols. This was meant to improve the intuitiveness of the symbols and increase their usefulness for international applications and support. The main exception to this rule is the use of an H in the hospital symbol.

ICS symbols can still resemble existing usage and conform to the standard by using the correct opaque shape (Infrastructure/rectangle, Operations/circle, etc.) and annotating the symbol as desired.

Incident Command SymbolSome ICS symbols, such as Incident Command Center, remain unchanged, but are framed in accordance with their Category (in this case, a circle for Operations).

6) Why does the _____ symbol look like that? I don't like it.

The symbols were developed through a collaborative process by a variety of representatives from Federal state and local government. An informal comment period was held through a website in early 2004. Many comments were received from first responders and emergency managers, and 17 symbols were revised. There will be an additional opportunity to comment during the public comment period of the ANSI process.

Morgue SymbolA few symbols, such as those for religious institutions or morgues, can become sensitive or controversial when intuitive symbols are used. It is recommended that when a symbol's appearance is inappropriate for a map application, the simple opaque shape of the Category be used in place of the symbols and it be annotated appropriately.

7) We really need a symbol for _______. Can you put it in?

New symbols will be incorporated as resources permit and the standards process allows. Suggestions can be sent to

Some tools have been developed to make choosing symbols easier. One of these was created by the Coast Guard, and one by Kent State University. They will be available from the website shortly.

8) Why were the symbols developed as True Type Fonts?

True Type Font symbols seemed a good place to start to enable them in a wide variety of software applications. Eventually we hope to offer more formats, but it will really be up to software vendors to build these symbols into their products and add value to them.

9) Are the symbols available as ESRI markers?

Yes. Jim Mossman of Digital Deja View has developed a nice set of ESRI markers and documentation for installation and use. They can be downloaded from the ESRI Arcscripts site at: by searching on “emergency response symbol.” Please note that the Symbol Subgroup was not involved in the development of these markers, and provides no support for them.


This page last updated: September 14, 2005 10:15 AM

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