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Your high school, digitized for safety

A new software program that collects and stores detailed information about South Whidbey High School and other schools around the state will soon help local law enforcement and rescue personnel preparing for a worst-case scenario.

Whatever the emergency at the high school — fire, earthquake or terrorism — police and fire personnel will have a new tool for instantly finding the cause of the emergency as well as the students and staff in trouble.

A Seattle company, Prepared Response, is being paid $3.5 million by the state of Washington to create the mapping databases for all the state’s approximately 450 high schools. The company came to South Whidbey High School to gather information on Nov. 14. The statewide project is expected to be complete by January 2005.

With a few keystrokes on a computer, first responders will be able to get a detailed look at any the high school building, all the entrances and exits, facilities, and access roads. Police and sheriff’s deputies will have the ability to pull up the information in their cars while heading to an emergency.

“Anything we can do to enhance safety and address emergencies quickly is beneficial to everyone,” said Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley.

This state’s project grew out of the incident at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, when two students shot and killed 12 other students and a teacher before committing suicide.

“The incident at Columbine really got the ball rolling here,” said Rick Pitt, the facilities manager for South Whidbey Schools.

In 2001, South Whidbey High School was the site of a mass casualty incident drill put on by Fire District 3. During the drill — which was scripted to resemble the Columbine shootings — fire responders and sheriff’s deputies had to “rescue” student and adult actors from the school while a gunman with a paintball gun put up resistance. The biggest challenge during that drill, according to responders, was finding their way around the building.

This year, the Washington Legislature passed a bill requiring the school mapping so as to avoid something like this happening in real life.

An incident which showed its usefulness occurred at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane this fall. The school had already been mapped and law enforcement officials used the information to disarm a student carrying a gun. The action took 12 minutes compared to the four hours it took to get Columbine under control.

According to South Whidbey School’s Pitt, the two representatives from Prepared Response Inc. who came to South Whdbey High School “took photos of every door, every classroom... every part of the building inside and out.” The information, when compiled and organized, will be available on a CD or by logging onto a secure site on the Internet.

The mapping and information program was developed by analyzing real school emergencies, including fires, medical emergencies, and several high-profile school shootings. The purpose was to make available information to first responders that would allow them to perform more effectively and safely. Data includes locations of security systems, shutoffs for utilities, and plenty of photos, including rooftops, gymnasiums, libraries, auditoriums and other gathering places. The database also includes phone numbers and emergency plans.

Pitt and South Whidbey High School principal Mike Johnson along with other school officials from the region met with company representatives this fall and will meet with them again in the spring, along local law enforcement and fire personnel. Johnson said having this information available at the touch of a keyboard will be helpful.

“When completed it will be a useful tool to respond to any disaster or situation where we need to evacuate students,” he said.

The Island County Sheriff’s Department, Island County Fire District 3, Langley Police Department and the Washington State Patrol will have access to the information. It will not be available to the general public.

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