Navigating through crisis

     If the O.J. Simpson trial inspired law enforcement agencies across the country to take a more painstaking approach to the collection and preservation of evidence, the mass shootings that occurred at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech motivated just as many agencies to consider creating emergency management response plans. There are good reasons to develop such strategies, and to train in them, prior to an incident. Unfortunately, quite often this interest dawns after the fact, as many first responders, as well as manufacturers of these emergency management software and hardware systems will attest.

     At one time this could be attributed to a dearth of products on the market designed for this purpose. Additionally, the ones that were available were often technically overwhelming, difficult to implement and quite costly. But this is rapidly changing, affording most agencies the opportunity to add preplanning systems to their toolboxes regardless of budget or technical capabilities.

From simple to complex

     Some emergency management systems offer a full menu of functions. These systems are typically Web-based, enabling users to instantly communicate information to as many people as desired. These tools can assist in preplanning responses to incidents involving, for example, hazardous materials, which affords the ability to identify the materials involved, calculate safe distances and evacuation routes, and even provide information on recommended respirator types based on the spill or fire.

     These same systems can include mapping applications that let responders know the exact layout of a particular facility. Their mapping capabilities also can be applied to very broad areas such as entire cities, enabling responders to determine safe evacuation routes in the event of an attack or natural disaster and helping locate critical businesses that might exacerbate the situation, such as (in the case of a widespread fire) buildings that store propane or factories that house explosive chemicals.

     But other systems are more pared down. They may, for example, primarily focus on helping agencies respond to a relatively contained event, such as a school shooting, as opposed to responding to an array of incidents, natural or otherwise, that have a potentially broader impact. The available systems run the gamut of capabilities, but one commonality they share is helping first responders know everything they need to know about a facility or group of buildings and their layout before they leave their vehicles.

Facilitating intelligent responding

     Let's use the example of a high school to get an idea of the kind of data these systems capture, although there is some variance among products. Typically, responders would be able to access information, by floor, about classroom location and kind. This would be important in the case of a chemistry classroom or a woodshop, for example. The position of doors and windows, including interior doors and door swing information could be noted, as well as the location of plumbing, bathrooms, fire suppression systems, electrical systems, stairwells, entrances and exits, and so on. All phone numbers can be captured, as well as classroom phone extensions. Many of these programs allow responders to immediately communicate important changes, such as blocked exits, or rooms that have been swept and cleared. In the case of multiple-building campuses, this data can be captured for every building, along with a general campus layout that includes information on pathways, driveways and more. In some cases, aerial photos of the site are also included.

     Obviously, arriving at the scene forearmed with this kind of knowledge offers agencies tremendous advantages, especially if they have developed an emergency response strategy and trained responders on it. By the same token, the absence of this information and lack of advance crisis planning forces responders to formulate a response plan as they go along — not an ideal approach. Consider what happened at Columbine, says Richard Neiman, president of FloorView, whose company is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and manufactures a situational awareness system. (See "Tactical Mapping Aids" on Page 18 for details on this software and mapping offerings from other manufacturers.)

     Many agencies provide only blueprints to their first responders, Nieman explains. Sometimes this is in the form of hard-copy blueprints, or blueprints contained on CD. This requires those first on the scene to find the appropriate blueprint — and there could be dozens of them, depending on the jurisdiction — lay it out across the hood of a car or load it up into the vehicle laptop, and then somehow effectively share this information with other responders. Inefficient as this is, it's better than not having blueprints at all, as was the case with the Columbine massacre.

     "It took first responders to Columbine an hour to get floor plans," Nieman says. "And when they did, [the plans] were four years old. You had 11 agencies showing up; that means there were 11 commanders on the ground, and they were asking kids how to get to the cafeteria."

     Responders faced a somewhat similar predicament at Virginia Tech, Nieman adds. In this case, the doors to the building where the shootings were occurring were locked, leaving local police stymied as to how to get in. FloorView software would contain this critical information, says Nieman, as well as note where keys could be found or who could be called to find them, which would eliminate surprise and confusion for those first on the scene.

     Cpl. Rob Crespy with the Township of Ridley Police Department in Folsom, Pennsylvania, thinks having detailed floor plans at the ready is a great idea. Currently, he carries blueprints of the local high school as well as of the Boeing factory located in Ridley Township.

     "As a result of Columbine, we've been trained how to better respond," he says. "We have a high school here — Ridley High School — and every one of us carries a hard copy of its layout and we train on these. I know every inch of that high school, and know Boeing pretty well too."

     Crespy says that if he were assigned to Ridley on a rotating basis, he'd probably develop more of his own plans. "The biggest problem is that we haven't had any major incidents — which I think is just a matter of time — and so we haven't developed more detailed plans," he says. "We've just done the basics [and] I think this is a mistake. I think we need to develop more detailed floor plans that can be communicated to all first responders on the scene and to command officials."

Understanding the value

     The value of mapping systems is evident, but many agencies have not made serious moves in this direction — although if mass shootings like those at the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, and the church shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, continue to make headlines, this will likely change. The agencies that have already done so are those where there's a lot going on, such as Las Vegas or New York City, says Duke Dutch, manager of law enforcement applications for Sokkia Corporation.

     Sokkia, whose North American headquarters are located in Olathe, Kansas, manufactures precision measuring systems that agencies can use to do their own interior and exterior mapping. Two systems commonly used by law enforcement agencies are the LEA Remote Mapper and the Prismless Mapper. The Remote Mapper is robotic and mobile and goes right to the point that will be mapped. The Prismless Mapper is stationary, requiring end-users to sight — think street surveying — Dutch explains. Captured data is integrated into a software program designed for mapping and other preplanning functions.

     Dutch says that most law enforcement agencies use outside parties to collect this data rather than capture it themselves through systems like theirs. While there are some advantages to having a third party handle this aspect, such as not having to manage the task themselves, there are key benefits to the do-it-yourself approach, such as accuracy, capturing what is most essential, and capturing changes.

     Agencies interested in any kind of mapping and emergency management response system should ask what they need for the majority of their applications, says Dutch, adding that most of the time what agencies inquire about, instead, is cost. Whatever data is collected and harvested must be kept current. Dutch advises agencies to take a page from the U.S. Secret Service model.

     "In the Secret Service, once something has been mapped, there are no changes allowed," he explains. "They're serious about this: no major changes. Move a reception desk from one spot to another and the whole scenario could change. So on the tactical floor plans, this is what you have to take into account; they can't make changes, at least not major ones."

     But no matter the system used, perhaps one of the most important benefits derived from mapping is that it gets agencies thinking and talking about the need for preplanning and for working together to develop effective responses to all manner of emergencies. When tensions are high and the situation is critical — and the outcome depends on a coordinated response from disparate entities — these systems can give responders an important and lifesaving edge.

     Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California.