Pre-Incident Planning Must Go to the Head of the Class for Nation's Schools

July 12, 2007
The tragedy at Virginia Tech underscores the need for pre-incident planning.

When we learned early on the morning of April 16 that a lone gunman had shot and killed 33 people on the Virginia Tech University campus, we felt shock, disbelief, anger and sadness. Those of us who work as first responders realized the incident only underscored the need for much tighter security at schools, and particularly more precise pre-incident planning. Yet, can we really prevent or even fully contain another horrific event like this one? Probably not. At least, that’s the opinion of many professionals in our field, including Sgt. Trent Cooper of the Littleton, Colorado Police Department.

“Once a situation like this is underway, it’s impossible to predict it and difficult to deal with, given the amount of territory, limited manpower, number of buildings, amount of victims and ammunition,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t take long to do a lot of damage.”

Of course, the police sergeant speaks from experience close to home: the chilling Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999, in unincorporated Jefferson County, Colo., near Denver and Littleton. That incident left 13 dead (15 including the two perpetrators) in what would become the third-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, after the Virginia Tech tragedy and the 1966 University of Texas campus tower shooting incident.

The more recent active shooter incidents now have made first responder agencies realize just how crucial focused pre-incident planning is.

Fed Leads Way With Training Guidelines

Driving this whole effort is a mandate from the U.S. Department of Emergency Management (DEM) for each state to meet compliance standards set forth in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The NIMS provides a consistent, nationwide template to establish federal, state, tribal and local governments to prevent, respond to or recover from domestic incidents, including acts of catastrophic terrorism. Compliance, which is tied to funding grants, is mandatory each year, and this year, the deadline is Sept. 30. NIMS was designed to address all-hazards challenges, and emphasizes prevention and preparedness measures that must be in place to satisfy compliance standards.

The movement toward tighter security reveals various strategies and technologies requiring closer cooperation and coordination between the potential targets, such as schools, and the battery of first responders who will be called upon to intervene at an incident.

For years, fire departments have had the upper hand in pre-incident planning, since they automatically create pre-fire plans of most commercial buildings within their respective jurisdictions. These plans typically included a site plan showing the building floor plan, photographs and information about building access, hazardous materials, water supply and anything else critical to the firefighting effort. It’s now understood that much of the information fire departments have been collecting for years can greatly benefit other first responders as well.

nly recently has there been an effort to share these pre-plans with law enforcement and others so that everyone literally is on the same page.
Some public safety entities, such as the Mountain Home, Idaho Police Dept., where I serve as chief of police, have decided to be proactive with pre-incident planning for schools. Prior to the Columbine incident, we began training our officers for active shooter, scenario-based situations, whereby the officers go into actual school buildings and isolate and contain the perpetrator.

Automated Floor Plans Tighten Automated Planning, Response

The Mountain Home Police Department utilizes software from the CAD Zone Inc. to access floor plans of the school buildings. The First Look Pro software is the program we use, which is a companion to the company’s Fire Zone and Crime Zone drawing programs. With First Look Pro, we can create a “first-response” database, search for files and view all pre-incident plan diagrams (in 2D and 3D), photos, maps and other images. All of this information is displayed once the user enters a building name, address or pre-incident plan ID. For our purposes, the floor plans and text descriptions for the Mountain Home schools are instantly accessible by entering the school’s name on personal digital assistants (PDAs) supplied to detectives in our police department.

Mountain Home’s fire department also uses First Look Pro and can access the same pre-incident plans for schools that we have and for all of the city’s commercial buildings.

Our next step is to be able to access from any patrol car a frequency equal to that for the security cameras stationed within the schools, so that if we need to know any activity in a certain hallway, we can access this from our cars. We’re also aiming to share this access simultaneously with the sheriff’s department, local ambulances, county 9-1-1 dispatch center and the Idaho State Highway Patrol. Our goal is to cross-match from a video system in a car to an incident command center so that we can view a photo or video image of activity anywhere in any of our schools. In addition, we will install mobile data terminals in the patrol cars so that officers can access the floor plans. We also will have mobile mapping.

Although Mountain Home hasn’t had an active shooter incident in its schools, it’s a much different world today and we have to plan for this.

One State Installs Web-Based Preplan System

In 2003, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), along with Prepared Response Inc. took a statewide approach to school pre-incident planning. Armed with $3.5 million in funding provided by the state legislature, this band of agencies mapped every high school in Washington state and now is cataloguing all public K-12 schools using Prepared Response’s Rapid Responder crisis management system. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security-certified software program is Web-based and allows emergency responders to immediately respond to any emergency incident. The program allows emergency personnel to view 300 data points of site-specific critical information en route to an emergency, access building safety plans and geospatial information through a secure internet connection.

The key component of the WASPC and Prepared Response approach is to conduct joint emergency response planning sessions while the system is being deployed at each school. This drives collaboration, communication and coordination between local first responders and school officials before an event. These joint preplans are then added to the platform. This approach and system has already been successfully used at a Washington state high school to quickly contain an active shooter and evacuate 2,000 students in 20 minutes in Spokane.

Wayne Senter, fire chief with Washington State’s South Kitsap County Fire District, contends that by using the web-based emergency preparedness program, first responders now can easily access critical pre-plan information for any high school anytime, regardless of location.
Senter said that approximately 1,300 buildings in his fire district’s response area each require a detailed pre-fire drawing. Critical items such as entries, exits, hydrants, roof structure and hazmat, among others, which the responder needs to know before arriving at a building, are indicated on each preplan.

“If we put this information in a Visio (Microsoft’s software for creating business and technical drawings) format, we’re able to locate it on a map on the Web when responding to an incident,” Senter explains. “The responder just clicks an icon on the map and the prefire drawing comes up since it’s an attachment to the mapping system.”

The only downside to Web-based systems is that, in some areas, you may not be able to obtain an adequate Web connection. It’s always a good idea to make sure that your pre-incident plan information also is stored on the hard drive of each mobile data terminal in case you enter an area where an internet connection is unavailable.

Viewing Incidents in Real-Time

Still another approach to pre-incident planning is in place at the Broward County, Florida School District, the nation’s sixth largest, with 278,000 students attending 230 schools. The district has taken an “all-hazards” approach to pre-incident planning. It formed a First Responder Committee that involves representatives from police, fire and the school disstrict to discuss and adopt best practices for incident responses.
Says Joe Melita, executive director for the Broward County School District Professional Standards and Special Investigative Unit, “We don’t just look at emergencies as an active shooter, or bomb threats because school safety can take a lot of different forms.”

Every first responder agency in Broward County has floor plans of all school buildings on laptop computers. Safety plans, with contact phone numbers, for the schools can be accessed online by police agencies using a protected password. By October, Melita is hoping most of the county’s schools will have live video transmission feeds for police agencies to tap so they can view activities throughout any school campus.
To reinforce such pre-incident planning, various first responder agencies practice emergency response drills right on school campuses, and SWAT teams attached to police departments hold their own drills as well.

While these efforts are impressive, Melita noted even more progressive measures. For example, one measure requires a visitor to any of the county’s schools to have his/her government identity scanned. The scanning program is linked to the national sexual predator database. If the scan reveals no problems, the visitor is issued a pass and allowed onto the school campus. But if there’s a red flag, the ID scan will set off Blackberry mobile computers carried by police officers, who will speed to the campus and confront the visitor.

Consider Grant Money, Pricing for Pre-Plan Programs

Many first responder agencies today are much better prepared for major incidents than they were at the time of the Columbine massacre. Although thousands of agencies still have only paper pre-incident plans, they at least are working more aggressively toward training together to make schools and all other key buildings safer as incidents arise. Of course, this all takes money.

Fortunately, DHS funding grants are available to help support the training and technology needed to make schools more secure. I recommend visiting the DHS Web site at

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