The best emergency response system isn't designed to prevent school shootings, natural disasters or other large-scale emergencies. But, it enables public safety agencies to respond quickly and effectively, increasing the safety margin of students and other affected persons.
Pierce County, WA Emergency Management officials say the new Pierce Responder System is such a system. "Pierce County now has an innovative program that we believe increases student safety significantly," said Steve Bailey, emergency management director.
In response to school shootings across the nation, many schools are taking preventive measures against violence by establishing policies, increasing student awareness and hiring SRO's (school resource officers). The school shooting incidents at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo., and elsewhere revealed emergency response weaknesses, including inadequate organization, coordination and communication.
Even before the Columbine tragedy, Bailey and his staff were building the foundation for a new approach to school safety. Following the April 20, 1999, emergency, he took a Pierce County delegation to Littleton to meet with the local agencies that responded. "This visit provided us with important information to fine-tune our program," he said.
The program includes two main components: An interactive, on-line web-based school information system and a partnership between emergency response agencies and schools.
Developed by Pierce County Emergency Management and Information Services/GIS, Pierce Responder displays information about a school's contacts, utilities, shut-off valves for water and alarms, and floor plans. It also displays digital photos of the school's interior spaces and exterior, aerial photos of the surrounding area, and videos of the interior hallways.
The system allows responders to interactively enter incident action plans, communication plans, and situation reports, which are then available to all responding public safety and school personnel. "This information is vital to the incident managers who must coordinate large numbers of resources and communicate with hundreds of concerned parents," Bailey said.
The system uses low-cost Internet technology, wireless modems and laptop computers so all responders see identical, current information and receive instructions without relying on radios or face-to-face communications. The development of the database for senior and junior high schools in Pierce County is among the PRS's significant achievements. This database can now be used during any school emergency.
"The first 10 minutes of an incident are critically important for achieving the most favorable result," Bailey said. Hundreds of decisions must be made by the responding agencies, and the Pierce Responder System provides emergency personnel with vitally needed information and communications.
The new system was tested with a simulated act of school violence at a local high school and came through with positive feedback. Responding agencies used laptop computers and successfully viewed floor plans and maps and tracked the incident at the command center via wireless communications.
Bailey and his staff are encouraged that the Littleton Fire Department has adopted the Pierce Responder System as a primary database for school pre-incident planning. "We have entered (data from) almost all of our high schools and middle schools," said Littleton Fire Capt. Jim Olsen. "The program has been greeted with enthusiasm by the law enforcement resource officers assigned to the school and by all of the school officials who have viewed the system. "It is my opinion that a system of this nature would be of enormous benefit to any jurisdiction confronted with an incident similar to the Columbine tragedy."