Mountain Rescue and GIS Expert: Getting to Know Philip Urban

Urban,Philip

I sat down with Philip Urban last week to learn more about one of NRI’s newest recruits. He shared his passion for mountain rescue missions, GIS, and what it is like working as a German on a US Army Base.

You are currently working at the United States Army Garrison (USAG) in Stuttgart in the Master Planning Division. When did you join the NRI team? 

I started working for NRI in August 2018, so I am pretty new. I was at the beginning of my master thesis, and started to search for potential jobs for after my studies were complete. I came across the position at NRI GmbH and applied.  To be honest, I didn’t think that they would invite to an interview or even get hired.  I was pretty surprised because my mindset was: “Lets try and apply and see what happens but if not then, hey, I still have time.” To my surprise I was invited to an interview, and then to a second interview. The second interview was great because Scott [Holbrook, CEO] took me to the base in Stuttgart and showed me where I would work and my future colleauges. I thought it would be a good opportunity for me and the work sounded interesting, so well…why not? The best part of the deal was that until the end of March 2019, I only worked three days a week to work on my thesis. Writing a thesis next to a full-time job is not really possible, in my opinion, so this was a great solution for finishing my thesis and ultimately receiving my degree, but at the same time starting to work and gain experience in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) services.

If employees have any problems with GIS then they come to me to solve them.

That is a pretty exciting start to a career in GIS. It can be nerve-wracking applying for your first ‘real job’ and I commend you for going for it, even if you were unsure!   Can you tell me a little bit about your current position?  

Sure, I am working for the Master Planning Division, which consists of about eight employees with three working with GIS.  My main responsibilities include maintaining data in the GIS database, which entails updating data when there are some changes in the Garrison or complying with the US Army standards, and providing GIS/mapping support.  If employees have any problems with GIS, then they come to me to solve them.

I think many people assume that only Americans are working on the US Army bases, but in fact there are quite a few German civilians holding permanent positions. What is it like as a German native working for the US Army?

Some stereotypes are definitely true…They always drive big pickups 😉 But on a serious note, during my interview, I was talking with Scott, and he informed me about the amount of Army bases in Germany. Beforehand, I didn’t even know that there were many US Army bases still in Germany and that any Germans are working there [Editors note: as of the writing of this post there are 36 US Army Bases in Germany].  I knew there once was a base in Heidelberg, because I grew up in Karlsruhe near Heidelberg and, of course, every German has heard of Ramstein [Air Base]. When I came here to Stuttgart, I saw that even though Stuttgart isn’t the biggest Garrison, when you enter the base it is like you are switching from Germany to the US…there is a small society inside the bases.  What impressed me the most is that the bases have their complete own infrastructure, so it’s pretty much a little city inside a city. You have everything you need: stores, food court, dental clinic, doctors and whatever else you need for your daily life, including the housing where you can live.  So when you are a soldier or family of a soldier or civilian living there you are do not even have to leave the base.

We came to the topic of physical Geography and started learning a lot about glaciers and the high mountains in the Alps, and I knew that this is where I belong.

Coming back to your current field of work: when did you first know that geography and GIS were what you wanted to spend your career working on?

I actually came to this career through my experience in other fields. After a brief time studying civil engineering, I landed on studying education with a focus on German and geography.  Once I had my first geography classes I knew that this was the area I wanted to spend the majority of my time. I eventually switched to a Bachelor in Geography at the University of Heidelberg. We came to the topic of physical geography and started learning a lot about glaciers and the high mountains in the Alps. I knew that this is where I belong. I then found the Masters in Physical Geography program at the Goethe University in Frankfurt and this is where I really got hooked on GIS.  From that point on I attended every seminar possible about GIS and there were even a few seminars, for example, about drones and how we can use them for surface models and I got involved into python and C++ scripting…but I only touched the surface in it.

So you have now finished your thesis and have received your master’s degree?

Yes, now I finally have the physical paper degree!

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Congratulations! You created maps for emergency routes in the Black Forest Mountain Range for your thesis.  How did you land on this topic and what was it like applying all that theory to a real-life scenario?

The idea was born when I had a call at the Mountain Rescue Service and we were searching for a person and the rescue team didn’t know how to get to their location to get them out of there. I thought to myself, there must be a way to use GIS to create a rescue plan to ease our services.  It felt really good to apply all the theory I learned in university to really help people.  Everything I learned has a practical use and it is not just basic research or only theory.

The most important thing is the team. We always stand together, no matter what call comes up.

Are you still involved in the Mountain Rescue Service?

Now that I finished my thesis, I have time. 🙂 I am spending most of it as the Deputy Head of Mountain Rescue for the Chapter Karlsruhe [Stellvertretender Leiter Bergrettung]. I am responsible for all of the training of our rookies, which involves a lot of administrative work. We plan four weekends of training per year, two in summer and two in winter. To organize these weekends, we have to write example cases, build presentations and organize the logistics. It is very time consuming, but it’s worth it. We have a lot of fun during these weekends and enjoying the time we spend together. The most important thing is the team. We always stand together, no matter what call comes up.

[For some insight into Philip Urban’s time working in the mountain rescue here is a clip back from 2015 (in German): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9i0HqrbAz_U]

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What is one of the most important life lessons you have learned during your experience there?

The most important lesson is that teamwork is everything. If you’re trying to act alone, you will fail. We are a group of very different people but inside this rescue team, we are best friends. When we are on duty in winter, we spend more than 48 hours together, so you have to get along with each other. But that is what makes this kind of team special. There is always someone who is there for you and you never respond to a call alone.

Any free time left for hobbies? 🙂

Yes, when I am not busy at the rescue service, I enjoy other outdoor sports like skiing, mountain biking and climbing.

Thanks so much for your time, Philip, keep up the important work!

Find more information about Philip and the NRI team on nri-site.com. This interview was conducted on July 18th, 2019 by Katina Schneider

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