Districts to install emergency response system - East Valley Tribune: News

Districts to install emergency response system

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Posted: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 8:04 pm | Updated: 9:01 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It's a nightmare scenario: a student showing up on campus with a gun, threatening classmates and administrators. But it's one that two East Valley districts are preparing for with an emergency computer system that's new to Arizona.

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The Scottsdale and Mesa unified school districts will be the first in the state to install Rapid Responder, a Web-based system that gives school officials and emergency personnel access to school emergency plans, contact information, floor plans, views from different parts of the campuses and other information to help first responders deal with a crisis.

Both districts are working with Washington state-based Prepared Response, the company that developed the system, with grant money from the U.S. Department of Education. Scottsdale received $364,000 to put its 33 school sites and an administrative building on the system, which it hopes to have completely online in May; Mesa got $872,000 to map out its 89 school campuses and four administrative sites, which it had online in March.

School districts have always had emergency response plans. Milissa Sackos, the Scottsdale district's executive director of student and community services, referred to the 34 big red binders she has for each site in Scottsdale with those emergency plans spelled out over piles of pages.

But no one can have those binders at their fingertips at all times, while this new system can be accessed from anywhere - even the computers in police cars, she said.

"This is an online tool that lets us upload our emergency response plans so they are at our fingertips at any moment," Sackos said. "This has brought our emergency response plans to a whole new level."

And it has more than evacuation plans. Each school met with emergency responders in the area to map out details like which streets would be closed in an emergency and where emergency helicopters would be directed to land.

Having those details worked out and readily available cuts down on communication time during a crisis, said Tom Hawes, director of emergency management for the Mesa school district.

Emergency personnel "can be preparing a plan of attack before they even get on the scene," Hawes said.

It also gives emergency personnel a view of the campus - an advantage to responders who have never set foot there before, said Scottsdale police Detective Rob Katzaroff, school resource officer at Desert Mountain High School.

Each school on the system includes photos of different vantage points from the campus, including the view a gunman might have from different classrooms and what the emergency power and gas shutoffs look like on each campus. There are even databases of what chemicals are kept where on different campuses.

Prepared Response has been around since about 2000, developing its program in response to the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, said company spokesman Gary Sabol. It is currently installed in 336 school districts in 12 different states and should be installed in all 1,737 public schools in Washington by the end of the summer.

A growing number of companies are offering similar programs, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based company that has worked with schools across the country.

And while the concept of the programs is excellent, school districts need to look at the costs and how much of the information they can pull together on their own, too.

"How they do that I think is really the critical issue," Trump said.

Programs have to be maintained with information to be useful, he said.

"One of the first things I ask is, 'What is your backup plan in case the computer system is not functioning in case of an emergency?' " Trump said. "Sometimes just having the good old paper version with accurate information just isn't that bad."

Sackos said that in Scottsdale, one of the biggest advantages of bringing the system online was being forced to go through each campus in detail with emergency responders.

Both Sackos and Hawes admitted that in the most recent emergency situations the two districts faced - a lockdown at two schools in Scottsdale as police searched for a possible gunman near Cocopah Middle School and an evacuation at Mesa's Adams Elementary School after a neighborhood chemical spill - the system wasn't used.

Hawes said Adams acted so quickly that the school had evacuated by the time he spoke to higher administrators and logged onto the system.

And Sackos said Scottsdale didn't need to log onto the system since it had just developed a plan for the schools.

Not to say the district wants another chance to test it.

"We never say never," she said. "We just continue to be as prepared as we possibly can."

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