Cobb County plans for the worst
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Dec 23, 2002
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
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,
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
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,
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.