Alabama Schools Leave Digital Footprint

When was that fire extinguisher serviced? Virtual Alabama School Safety System (VAS3) knows.

Where’s the gas shutoff valve for this floor? VAS3 knows.

What evacuation route do students use in the event of natural disaster? VAS3 knows.

There’s very little that VAS3 doesn’t know about the facilities and the school safety plans of Alabama’s 1,536 individual schools.

Using back-end GIS technology with a front-end Google Maps interface, VAS3 provides a “digital footprint” of every physical detail of a school, including detailed information, photographs, first responder information and real-time camera feeds, all of which can be updated and shared in real-time.

“Rather than a tragedy like Sandy Hook or Columbine, this effort simply started with a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to map one school in each district across the state as a model,” says Phillip Henderson, director of the Alabama GIS Program Office and the state’s Geographic Information Officer. “Alabama is the first state in the nation to have an established tool (VAS3) that allows the appropriate personnel to view school safety plans and floor plans in a digital format online. As we put it together, we learned how to make it simple and how to make it easy to use. The State Department of Education saw its value, and from the grant effort came an initiative to take all of the paper school safety plans gathering dust in filing cabinets and digitize them. It next became a tool that could be used by first responders and government entities for planning — and if an event happens.”

The Alabama Department of Homeland Security provided the initial funding for the statewide project and ongoing funding now comes from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. According to Sarah Jones, Virtual Alabama Program Manager, VAS3 includes information on 51 items of interest within a school, and more layers continue to be added as schools request them. For example, the state mandate to map K-12 public schools does not require a photo of every room, but school administrators have come to realize they can use such photos as inventories. As far as the mapping requirement goes, schools can enter all of their own information at no cost, or at a very minimal cost a Virtual Alabama team will come to the school for several days to do a thorough mapping and hold a meeting with school administrators and local first responders.

“Sometimes it’s the first time public safety and the school administration have met,” says Henderson. “At one school, the headmaster said their plan was for all students to evacuate to the flagpole in front of the school, because it’s a landmark that everyone knows, and the fire chief pointed out that the only fire hydrant is next to the flagpole. Getting people to the table together helps them make good decisions. The administrators know their children and are concerned about safety, but they’re not trained as first responders. When you put them together, it benefits everyone.”

Corporal Pamela Revels, supervising school resource officer for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, agrees about all of those benefits, saying that VAS3 has made school safety plans much more comprehensive.

“It’s outside the box, it’s current and it’s relevant. VAS3 has replaced the six-inch binder paper copy safety plan that just sits on a shelf with a fluid, living accessible plan that can provide first responders with the information needed to give the best possible help in the shortest amount of time,” Revels says. “Visuals make the whole plan come alive. Before, the paper plan might have said ‘evacuate to the front of the building,’ and now you can attach a picture of the exact spot. It helps all of us be on the same page.”

Revels has a “home base” in a K-12 school with 300 students, but she also moves around the county in her role as SRO supervisor: “I know all of my schools very very well, but how well do people who are not there on a regular basis know them? With VAS3, there’s a color code and numbering system that aids in a more concise response and includes mutual aid agencies.”

Lee County has 14 schools with more than 10,000 total students. Schools range in size up to the 2,000-student high school in Smith Station that is among the largest in the state.

“When it comes to developing plans for your school, size really makes a difference. Having a program that can aid you with this is tremendous. Also, most people are visual learners, and this makes it easier for them to understand,” Revels says.

“I think the fact that it is so user friendly is the biggest thing. You don’t have to understand everything about a computer. When I say to people ‘It uses that Google thing,’ they relax,” Henderson says. And Revels notes its versatility, pointing that whether it’s a barricade situation (criminal), a gas leak (accident) or damage from a tornado (natural disaster), knowing the location of the gas shutoff valve could prove invaluable.

“I’ve been an SRO for 10 years and I’ve loved every minute of it,” Revels says. “Critical incident planning has always been at the forefront, and I feel we’ve done a good job, but it’s never good to be satisfied. We want to keep improving our practices, and this is one of the best tools out there to help us do that.”

“We’re working with counties and other state agencies to get better data all the time. It’s not like we did it, we’re done, next project. It’s an ongoing effort. We’re housed by ALEA and they’re always suggesting things to add, and we’re committed to keeping the improvements coming,” Henderson says.

Jones says that one of those law enforcement-requested improvements is the addition of sex offender data on individuals living near schools and along bus routes, specifically near bus stops: “Schools can make bus drivers aware, and in some jurisdictions they even patrol those areas while the buses are running.”

“This system just helps keep our kids safer. It’s all about having pertinent conversations, information sharing and communication,” Revels adds.

You can visit the website at www.virtualalabama.gov. For more information, contact Pamela Revels (334 -319-4173 or email prevels@leecountysheriff.org; Phillip Henderson at (334) 517-2561, email Phillip.henderson@alea.gov; or Sarah Jones at (334) 517-2539, email sarah.jones@alea.gov.

Author: Becky Lewis, NLECTC