Technology

Inside Information

Three students at Rogers High School in Spokane, Washington, were goofing off, chinning themselves on a water pipe. That is, until the pipe broke and...
by | September 30, 2008

Three students at Rogers High School in Spokane, Washington, were goofing off, chinning themselves on a water pipe. That is, until the pipe broke and water started gushing onto the gymnasium floor. If ever there was a need to know immediately where the shutoff valve for the water was, this was the time.

In some schools, that information is tucked into binders in school offices -- hard to reach and difficult to fathom. Fortunately for Rogers High, shutoff valves are marked on a computerized map created for it and many other schools in Spokane. A resource officer from a school across town called up the map on his computer and radioed the shutoff valve's location to his counterpart, who was down in the school basement on the hunt for the valve. Shutoff occurred within minutes.

For decades, mapping with geographic information systems has been used outdoors -- for urban planning, environmental impact assessments, infrastructure inventories and other such needs. But the maps stopped at the door of the schoolhouse, as well as city hall and the statehouse. Now, GIS, which stores, edits, combines, analyzes and compares data spatially, is moving inside. The early adoptions can be traced to concerns about attacks -- from deranged citizens to disturbed students to bona fide terrorists -- that might require the securing of a building. Schools are the leading edge of the in-building trend. Washington State is mapping all of its K-12 buildings and its community colleges. Localities in at least 20 other states are mapping schools and other public facilities as well.

While details on in-building maps raise the same concerns that critical infrastructure marked on outdoor GIS maps do in the post-9/11 era -- the information could be used by terrorists to further their cause -- the latest indoor mapping phase is not so concerned with the negatives. Rather, an indoor GIS map is seen as an important emergency planning tool. "It's taking pre-planning to another whole level," says Eric Holdeman, a principal with an emergency management and security firm. "Columbine is what got it really popping."

A Terrible Time

That was certainly the case for Spokane County GIS Manager Ian Von Essen. What Von Essen remembers from the tragic Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999 is that the SWAT team arrived on the scene with little knowledge of the building. Students were drawing diagrams on napkins to help responders figure out where classrooms were. Because Columbine was a modern school with televisions and computers, the two students with guns could watch what the police were doing outside. "Everything you could do wrong," Von Essen says, "happened in that incident."

To prevent a similar lack of preparedness at its schoools, Spokane County began investing in very simple GIS tools 10 years ago. Then, five years ago, the county started an in-building pilot with newer GIS software at eight schools, including Lewis & Clark High School. Just three weeks after Lewis & Clark had finished collecting the necessary data for the state-of-the-art map -- but before it had gone through its complete training -- a student entered a third-floor science classroom, took out a gun and started shooting.

As the drama unfolded, a school officer from another school called up the GIS building information for Lewis & Clark on his computer and relayed it to the emergency responders' command post. Students were evacuated quickly and safely. Emergency personnel and school officials were able to lock down the building within 20 minutes.

After seeing the in-building GIS in action, the state legislature invested $15 million to map every high school in the state and then added additional funding for middle and elementary schools. This year, the legislature voted to pay for mapping half of the state's community colleges. The state also has mapped stadiums, hospitals, Sea-Tac Airport and other critical infrastructure.

Branching Out

Fire and police departments in some cities are using in-building GIS maps as an everyday tool. In New York City, 9,000 buildings in the city's five boroughs are considered high risk, particularly for fires. These high-risk high rises submit emergency action plans with details about the number of occupants and how many floors, exits and stairwells there are. Traditionally, this information was stored on compact discs in office files. Now, the in-building GIS map and data are available from any computer with online access. Firefighters at the scene of an emergency, for instance, would see that during a prior inspection, examiners noted the location of a 150-gallon propane tank. They could adjust their firefighting plan accordingly.

Not all jurisdictions that use in-building GIS are so state-of-the-art. Fort Wayne, Indiana, still relies on software it purchased nearly a decade ago. Members of a school safety commission, which includes public schools, corporations, colleges, universities and parochial schools, input their information and floor plans. The CDs are updated quarterly and distributed to first responders. While that may sound creaky and snail-like in this computer age, not a lot needs to be updated at any one time, John Weicker, security director for Fort Wayne community schools, points out. It's not fancy but it does the job, he says. "We spent $10,000, it works great and we cover the whole county."

The benefit of the in-building GIS tool, beyond its mapping capabilities, is that it can force police, fire and schools to work together in ways they might have resisted before. Bruce Kuennen, the manager of Washington State's Critical Incident and Mapping System, says that the first thing he does when working with a school to set up its GIS mapping is to visit the building and the school district offices to do an orientation. Kuennen then brings police and fire personnel to the school to help pre-plan a tactical response based on resources and geography.

Together, the parties decide such things as where -- in the case of, say, a shooting -- they will block roads outside that school and where they will reunite parents with students. "Just going through the process," Kuennen says, "improves the relationship between police and fire and schools."

After the site visit, hundreds of pictures of the school are taken from the roof, the ground, the inside, the outside and various directions. That allows responders to know what the shooter could see from any room in the school, or what an onsite firefighter would see upon arriving and entering.

To be sure, detailed GIS maps in the wrong hands could help those planning attacks. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many jurisdictions started removing, at least from the public Internet, the location details of bridges, dams, nuclear power plants and other critical infrastructure. "Once you put that into cyberspace," Holdeman says, "someone who wanted to know exactly how to do harm -- whether vandalism or something else -- the map is all there."

But such concerns have not stopped the mapping movement. In Washington State, anxiety over school shootings by disturbed students has taken precedence over the possibility that a sophisticated hacker would use the governments' GIS maps to plan a terrorist act.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Technology