Best Practice: St. Louis schools unveil virtual-reconnaissance tool

Newly developed software could allow emergency personnel to conduct virtual reconnaissance of two St. Louis schools to hasten response time in a crisis.

The need for such a tool came to light following the 1999 Columbine High School shootings near Littleton, Colo. Officials in Colorado voiced concerns that police intervention might have been delayed because officers were unfamiliar with the school’s layout. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 underscored the need.

Working with St. Louis police and school administrators, a Saint Louis University lab has created CD-ROMs that show 360-degree panoramic views of every classroom, cafeteria, gym, and office in two of the city’s largest high schools.

The discs also feature satellite images and aerial photographs of the buildings’ exteriors and neighborhoods to show routes in and out of the schools, and possible evacuation and staging areas.

Researchers plan to develop similar software for as many as 170 St. Louis-area schools, allowing emergency responders to conduct immediate, interactive reconnaissance of any the buildings with a few taps on a computer keyboard. “A good analogy is a high-definition computer game, where you can virtually walk through space,” said Jim Gilsinan, dean of Saint Louis University’s College of Public Service, which includes the Geographic Information Systems lab developing the software.

Workable on any computer, the so-called Crisis Intervention Response Application seeks to bolster safety of emergency crews, give an on-the-spot picture of how to best approach a violent setting, and offer schematics of nearby neighborhoods.

Police officials will have the ability in seconds to click on any area they wish to view. With software potentially more helpful than conventional diagrams, “the bottom line is it increases the efficiency and effectiveness of an emergency crew’s ability to respond,” Gilsinan said.

Such technology is long overdue, said Harold Brewster, vice president of the St. Louis school board.

“If something terrible were to happen, knowing the nuances of these old buildingsthe nooks and cranniesmight be valuable,” including showing where children might hide to escape flames and smoke, said Brewster.

For local firefighters, applications for now might be limited by the lack of computers on fire trucks, though “we’re going to have it,” Fire Chief Sherman George said.

“We do have some knowledge of buildings, but memories often aren’t as clear as what you can get from a computer screen,” he said. “This would be a very important tool” in giving firefighters visuals of a building’s entry points and water sources.

To create the CD-ROMs of Soldan and Beaumont high schools, the college students and staff took panoramic photographs of each room, then combined them with blueprints of each school’s layout, aerial photos, and satellite images.

Gilsinan said the work was being done in stages under a contract with St. Louis Public Schools. The college might eventually spin off the technology to another vendor if the district wants computerized mapping of each school, given that “this is a very labor-intensive kind of activity,” he said.

The university has been working on creating maps of two more local high schools.

Other school districts nationwide have taken similar steps since April 20, 1999, when two teenage gunmen fatally shot 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School before killing themselves. Police and firefighters there have said uncertainty about Columbine’s layout added to confusion when they responded to the nation’s deadliest school shooting.

Under a pilot program unveiled last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to lead testing across several Western communities with similar software.

Although Columbine and the terrorist attacks have underscored the need for such a system, Gilsinan said, he believes the tool eventually would have been developed anyway. “Those two events just accelerated it,” he said.

Even so, said St. Louis school board member William C. Haas, “I hope we spend as much energy finding the causes of such tragedies as Columbine as we do figuring out how to handle them when they arise.”

See these related links:

St. Louis Public Schools

Saint Louis University

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