A well-mapped response

Emergency preparedness software gives first responders a better view of the rescue scene with new mapping technologies


     During a typical day, Spokane Public School District police officers might investigate the usual array of crimes -- assault, theft, weapons in the school, custody disputes and so on. Their beat covers six high schools, six middle schools, 35 elementary schools and four special schools, for a total student body of more than 35,000 kids. The number of calls can vary from three to four a day up to 10, plus the usual routine patrols.

     On a particular September day in 2003, however, it was anything but ordinary for District Resource Officer Walt Pegram and the others on the district police force.

     "A student at Lewis & Clark High School fired a shot into one of the classrooms during lunch," Pegram recalls. "There was a teacher and a few students in the room and it turned into a barricade situation.

     "It became a waiting game," Pegram continues. "He was up on the third floor, with a good visual of the freeway, a hospital and the grounds around the school. He was also in the science wing where gas lines were running into the classroom. And, he asked for a lighter."

     But dire as the situation seemed, it could have been worse. A year prior to this incident, the school district mapped and photographed all school sites and loaded this information into a software program in order to provide detailed site-specific maps. This tool was designed not only to help coordinate response but also to enable agencies to determine their approach before an emergency situation occurs.

Mapping technology
     Lewis & Clark High School was the first school mapped in the district. While the situation was unnerving for Pegram and the other responders, they were not operating in the dark -- they had the advantage of technology.

     Using software loaded on laptops, they could see all the floor plans and what the shooter was looking at inside and out. Responders knew, for example, which room the gunman was in. The room happened to have an interior door opening to another classroom, giving the shooter three potential exit points. First responders were able to communicate this information to the SWAT team, which was vital, says Pegram.

     The active shooter and barricade protocols contained in the program allowed responders to pre-plan their responses and tailor them to this incident. Even though the student gunman was ultimately shot and seriously wounded, he survived. But there were no other casualties.

     Before launching this program, Pegram says they just had to make the best of these situations -- an approach he describes as "run and gun." But now, they're able to do a lot of pre-planning for a variety of scenarios involving many first responders.

     "There's a place in the program for pre-planning how we want to respond to an incident," Pegram explains. "And there's a blank map. If there's a power outage, there are a lot of things we need to look at and shut off. We can look at this blank map and impose our pre-planning on it, all in about 5 minutes."

     The initial mapping was done by the product provider, although Pegram says they included additional photos and site data to the maps. The software is loaded onto laptops, but can also be accessed via the Web. The Spokane (Washington) Police Department has similar laptop and Web access to this information.

     Jim Finnell, president and CEO of Seattle-based Prepared Response Inc. sees tremendous advantages when first responders are able to think ahead instead of entirely on their feet -- although he knows they're adept at doing just that.

     In fact, says Finnell, this take-it-as-it-comes mindset can be a little challenging when it comes to convincing responders to entertain the notion of pre-planning. But it can be difficult to organize a strategy on the spot, he adds, especially with people milling about. Having a joint, pre-planned and coordinated response makes for a more successful process.

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