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.
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.
Then there are hazmat situations. to contend with.
"Trained hazmat responders know how to implement a response plan and deal with an incident once they know and understand the problem in front of them," says Bruce King, CEO of AristaTek Inc., based in Laramie, Wyoming.
"If they knew they only had to deal with five substances anytime they responded, their life would be simpler," he continues. "The problem is, they have to be able to deal with hundreds of thousands of different hazardous substances, and there's not much chance they're going to know the necessary information on all of these substances."
Looking up information depends on the chemicals or agents involved, and might take more than 45 minutes to research, which can reduce crucial response time, says Tom Anderson, president/CEO of Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based First Responder Systems & Technology Inc.
Software tools exist to allow first responders to quickly and accurately identify not only the substances involved in the incident but also what kind of action is required; in which direction to evacuate, if necessary; and how wide of an area to evacuate.
John Moretti, former assistant chief for the 141-person, all-volunteer Manalapan (New Jersey) Fire Department, says they've been using a hazmat program for about six years now, as well as a navigation/mapping system software tool.
"We have different areas in our township that are high hazard, such as a business that manufactures hair product supplies," says Moretti. "We've had to do many evacuations of this business; they've had at least three fires a year. We're able to determine which way the wind is blowing, the humidity levels and other factors and communicate these to the police department to coordinate the evacuation."
Their system, which can be connected to the CAD, can run addresses, show the location and how to get there. It also provides details such as the location of water supplies, or any Tier 2 facilities in the area, along with information about the facility, says Moretti. For example, if there's a gas station located next to a house fire, responders will know if that station does automotive repairs or stores propane.
GPS coordinates are also given by the mapping software for helicopter responders to quickly locate landing zones en route to motor vehicle accidents.
This software enables rescue teams to pre-plan while responding to various scenarios, says Moretti. He adds that another particularly helpful feature determines the area hospitals and their maximum patient capacity.
"The police department is talking about using this system, especially since they are on the CAD and this software ties in very nicely," he says.
From hazmat to hotel
Hotel management teams are also finding that emergency management software has a place in their operations as well. Consider the historic, 611-room Davenport Hotel and Tower, located in Spokane, Washington. About two years ago, at the request of the U.S. Marshal Service, they installed mapping software, says Chris Powell, director of security at the hotel.
During that time, Spokane was hosting the 2005 9th Circuit Court Judicial Conference, recalls Powell. The Marshals were in charge of providing security for all the senior federal judges staying at the hotel during the conference.
"The whole hotel was mapped," says Powell, who participated in some of the pre-planning sessions. "We conducted drills with the police and fire departments. They planned out decontamination and staging areas and evacuation routes. Even the parking garage was mapped."
This information is not only available to Powell and his security guards; it's also on the mobile computers of both the police and fire departments. Since the initial launch, they've done subsequent training with the police department and the hazmat team. And as Pegram discovered, Powell agrees this tool is also useful for addressing facility issues such as water leaks.
Where is this technology headed? Finnell looks forward to improvements in wireless systems allowing data to become more portable, as with handheld systems.
King observes the rise in terrorism and the demands placed on first responders has put pressure on manufacturers to offer tools with increased capabilities and in more condensed formats -- wishful thinking in some ways.
"Many times the first responder is looking to reduce the number of physical boxes they have to carry to an incident," he explains.
"Although technology is advancing and there are lots of new technologies coming to the marketplace, it will take time before "one tool that does all" reaches the market.
"In the meantime, it makes sense that manufacturers work together, integrating where possible," King says. "That reduces the number of boxes the first responder has to carry and simplifies the operations problems of transferring information or results from one product to the next."
Several manufacturers of emergency preparedness software allow agencies to determine what best suits their needs. Following are several companies that provide technological advances for mapping the scene for first responders.
PEAC was originally designed as a hazmat tool for first responders contending with accidental chemical releases, says King. First offered in 1996, the PEAC software has since undergone the continued expansion and refinement of its content.
"The product now includes a comprehensive database of toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) and toxic industrial materials (TIMs), chemical warfare agents, biological agents, radiological isotopes, explosive materials, flammables/combustibles, pesticides and meth lab chemicals," says King.
PEAC's computational tools that provide end-users with safe standoff distances include: plume model for toxics; fireball calculator for unconfined vapor cloud explosions, gamma dose calculator for point source spills of radioactive isotopes and an explosion calculator.
This technology is available on two platforms with identical content -- PEAC-WMD 2007 for Windows (requires a desktop/laptop/tablet PC running Windows 2000/XP); and PEAC-WMD 2007 for Pocket PC (requires a handheld PDA running Windows Pocket PC or Mobile 5).
Due to the rise in terrorism, this tool evolved to include not only TICs/TIMs but also data on agents used in weapons of mass destruction.
For example, PEAC provides: recommended respirators types based upon the chemical concentrations existing at the event; assessment of potential chemical reactions in multiple-chemical situations and third-party, stand-alone, searchable databases drawn from sources.
"ARCGIS can pull information from the Web and other sources to the desktop," Nelson explains. "We take existing data from city, county, and other government agencies, into ARCGIS, where we can also link the information with photos, diagrams, and other documents and data the end-user collects," he says. "This is used by police departments, fire departments and emergency management agencies to analyze past and current events to give a geographic picture of what is occurring as well as to forecast future events, in some cases," according to Nelson.
Nelson describes ARCGIS as the core mapping software that is built upon, integrated it into other products, or used as a stand-alone. It's common for companies to build extensions into this software, Nelson explains.
For example, the software is core to Consequence Assessment Tool Set (CATS), an application built into ARCGIS by the federal government. It's designed to help develop emergency plans, such as a hazardous chemical leak or bomb blast. Among other features, CATS offers plume analysis to determine evacuation direction, evacuation areas and buffer zones. The CATS extension is available for free to any government agency.
Hazards U.S. Multi-Hazard (HAXUS MH) is another extension built onto the ARCGIS software. Available for free from FEMA, this risk management tool is specifically designed to address emergency management for flood, hurricane, earthquake, and wind hazards. Agencies interested in these extensions can connect by going onto the ESRI Web site (www.esri.com). Click on the Public Safety link. ARCGIS is required to operate both programs.
Its HazGuide software, which loads onto any laptop, contains all the federal guidelines for hazardous chemical materials and represents the four major federal guides and material safety data sheets (MSDS). Anderson says the database is searchable by United Nations numbers, Chemical Abstract Services (CAS) numbers -- sometimes found on tractor trailers, trains or other containers -- and also by DOT placards and NFPA codes. Information is also cross-referenced with any Tier 2 business.
The Tier 2 information can be embedded into the software program, so if there is a fire at a dry cleaners for example, responders would know what chemicals were stored there, how they were stored and who to contact," says Anderson.
The company also offers RespondWare, a Geospatial Information System (GIS) mapping/routing software that allows end-users to create detailed maps with information such as the location of schools and hospitals, power grids, water sources or police substations.
"Every piece of information the governance has can be associated with the map," Anderson explains. "Public safety can choose which piece of information is important." This software also allows first responders to pre-plan evacuations in the event of a natural disaster, which helps to avoid catastrophes like the ones wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"We provide everything a first responder would want to learn about a particular site," states Finnell.
The entire process starts with an orientation meeting, followed by a pre-planning tactical meeting, site visit, data collection and data entry. Prepared Response then returns to the site and conducts the necessary training.
Users can access this information via a Web version or a remote version that loads onto a laptop. The remote version enables connectivity if the software is already located on a laptop or is used with a USB drive.
"Rapid Responder is a very intuitive application and concept, says Finnell, allowing first responders to make crucial decisions very rapidly. The system is also highly secure.
"This is the only crisis management system that is certified by the Department of Homeland Security as Qualified Anti-Terrorism Technology (QATT)."
New advances in emergency preparedness software gives first responders a new way to coordinate tactical and rescue situations, whether it is due to an active shooter, a chemical spill or a terrorist threat. It will undoubtedly save time and lives by allowing responders to prepare for dangerous situations before its too late.
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California. She specializes in writing about public safety issues.