Cobb County plans for the worst

Cobb County, Georgia

To better respond to crises at its 115 Georgia schools, Cobb County's fire

and emergency services department has developed contingency plans— such

as plotting evacuation routes and staging areas— using geographic information

system (GIS) technology.

Such information has been distributed to all 27 fire stations within

the county, as well as to the police and other emergency employees. Although

the plans are available on compact discs and in binder notebooks, most are

using the paper copy because many fire vehicles lack computers, said Deputy

Chief Mike Ellington, who's also a member of the state's homeland security

task force.

Fortunately, the fire department has a 900 Mobile Command Vehicle, which

resembles a recreation vehicle loaded with communications and computer equipment,

cameras, telescopes, and televisions, designed to help at emergencies. This

vehicle can relay information or show digital maps on a large plasma screen,

officials said.

Ellington said the information — depicting perimeter boundaries, staging

and command areas, reunification sites, evacuation routes, and other pertinent

information on aerial photographs — will allow police, fire and emergency

workers to better coordinate responses to school emergencies, including

terrorism and school violence. Before, individual fire or police stations

had information only about schools in their immediate vicinity.

"Typically what can happen if you're not thinking of unified command

in the beginning, it makes it more difficult during an event to coordinate

activities," he said. "It makes all responders think in terms of a coordinated

action. In a nutshell, a picture is worth a thousand words. It is an excellent

planning tool."

Although the state and Cobb County, which encompasses about 340 square

miles and has a population of more than 600,000, have had emergency preparedness

task forces in place to coordinate all first responders and services, fire

officials said there were still some gaps.

That's what Capt. Jodi Gabelmann saw with the schools in the county.

She said the county's first responders needed a "nuts and bolts setup" in

the post-Columbine High School and post-Sept. 11 environments so that if

an event occurs they'll be on the same page.

Driving to the schools on her off-hours, she began looking at each school's

layout through "stick figure" representations, conferring with campus officials.

With advice and assistance from the county GIS and SWAT employees and the

blessing of her command staff, Gabelmann began working with aerial photographs.

Her initiative began in early July and finished in mid-October.

She said the work would have to be continually revised and updated since

some areas within the county, such as the western region, are not as developed

as other portions, but are growing significantly.

Ellington said the county is likely to take GIS to the next level, providing

better photos and depictions of such areas, possibly a three-dimensional

or virtual approach. He said the department also would replicate Gabelmann's

efforts in preparation for securing critical infrastructures or planning

for other potential hazards.

For example, if a chemical spill occurred in a particular neighborhood,

a 911 center with a digitized map of the neighborhood linked with a mass

communique application could easily and quickly warn residents of the danger,

he said.

Mark Muma, area school safety coordinator with the Georgia Emergency

Management (GEMA) Agency, said that in 1999 a state law mandated that every

school create a comprehensive plan dealing with all types of hazards with

a "good bit of emphasis on terrorism and some sort of violence."

The state set out minimum standards and that any plan would have to

be approved by the local emergency management agency and forwarded to the

state, he said, adding that not every school has an approved plan yet. However,

he said Cobb County has taken the lead in this instance and GEMA will further

examine duplicating its efforts in other counties.


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