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School shootings prompt more states to fund digital maps for first responders

School Safety-Digital Maps
Posted at 10:56 AM, Mar 08, 2024

When a motion detector went off overnight at Kromrey Middle School in Middleton, Wis., a police dispatcher called up a digital map of the building, pinpointed the detector, clicked on a live feed from the nearest camera and relayed the intruder's location to responding police.

Within moments, they captured the culprit: a teenager, dressed in dark clothes and a ski mask but carrying no weapon.

The map and cameras "let the dispatcher keep things from becoming super-escalated," said the school's security director, Jim Blodgett. "The dispatcher could see that it looked like a student ... just kind of goofing around in the building."

Spurred by mass shootings, thousands of school districts have hired companies to produce detailed digital maps that can help police, firefighters and medical professionals respond more quickly in emergencies.

The Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, where the teenage trespasser entered from a roof hatch, was an early adopter in Wisconsin, which has since provided mapping grants to about 200 districts.

More than 20 states have enacted or proposed digital school mapping measures in the past few years, according to an Associated Press analysis aided by the bill-tracking software Plural. Florida approved $14 million in grants last year. Michigan allotted $12.5 million. New Jersey allocated $12.3 million in federal pandemic relief funds to complete digital maps of every school in the state.

Critical Response Group, run by an Army special operations veteran, has been driving the trend. The New Jersey-based company's CEO Mike Rodgers recently told lawmakers in Maryland how he used gridded digital maps during deployments and was surprised the school where his wife taught had nothing similar. So he mapped her school, then expanded — to 12,000 schools and counting, nationwide.

"When an emergency happens at a school or a place of worship, most likely it's the first time those responders have ever gone there," Rodgers told the AP. "They're under a tremendous amount of stress and they're working with people they're not familiar with, which is exactly the same problem that the military is faced with overseas, and ultimately that's why this technique was born."

LOBBYING AND COMPETITION

Many of the state laws and bills contain nearly identical wording championed by Rodgers' company. They require verification by a walk-through of each campus and free compatibility with any software already used by local schools and public safety agencies. They must be overlaid with aerial imagery and gridded coordinates, "oriented true north" and "contain site-specific labeling" for rooms, doors, hallways, stairwells, utility locations, hazards, key boxes, trauma kits and automated external defibrillators.

The standards create "a competitive, fair environment" for all vendors, Rodgers said. But when New Jersey sought a mapping contractor, the Critical Response Group had "the only product that was available in the state that answered the legislative criteria," State Police mapping coordinator Lt. Brendan Liston said.

The New Jersey law required "critical incident mapping data," a phrase that Critical Response Group tried to trademark.

Critical Response Group has hired lobbyists in more than 20 states to advocate for specific standards, according to an AP review of state lobbying records. Competitors also have engaged lobbyists to wrangle over the precise wording. In some states, lawmakers have gone with a more generic label of "school mapping data."

Four companies offering digital mapping among their services — Critical Response Group, Centegix, GeoComm and Navigate360 — have together spent more than $1.4 million on lobbyists in 15 states, according to an AP analysis. Their costs are unknown in some states where lobbyist payments aren't publicly reported.

Delaware and Virginia also chose the Critical Response Group program. Iowa has contracted with GeoComm. Other states are leaving vendor decisions to local schools.

A RESPONSE TO TRAGEDY

A U.S. Department of Justice review of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, noted police had only "a basic map" that didn't show windows or doors connecting classrooms as they waited to confront the gunman.

The Texas Education Agency responded last year with new standards requiring an "accurate site layout" and door designations to be provided to 911 agencies. The Legislature reinforced this by requiring silent panic buttons and armed security officers as part of a more than $1 billion school safety initiative.

Creating each map can cost several thousand dollars, and costs can escalate as maps are linked to other security systems, such as wearable panic buttons. But integrations also add value.

"If it's not integrated with a crisis response system that can be pushed electronically to the dispatch center and police, then it's probably not going to mean anything to them in the first minutes," said Jeremy Gulley, the school system superintendent of Jay County, Indiana, which uses a Centegix mapping and alert system.

Because of their detailed information, digital school maps are exempt from public disclosure under legislation in some states. That's critical to school safety, said Chuck Wilson, chair of the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools, a nonprofit coalition of education groups, law enforcement and security businesses.

"If bad people had access to the drawings, that would be almost worse than not knowing" a school's layout, Wilson said. He added, "We've got to be really, really mindful of protecting this information."

MAPS NEED UPDATING

Many schools have long provided floor plans to local emergency responders. But they haven't always been digital. As with Uvalde, some plans have lacked important details or become outdated as schools are renovated and expanded.

Washington began digitally mapping every school in the state 20 years ago, after the deadly Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, and provided annual funding to the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs to operate the map repository.

But over time, schools quit updating the information and the maps grew stale. The state funding proved insufficient and legislators ended the program in 2021, just as more states launched similar initiatives.

Security consultant David Corr ran the program and wishes it could have continued, but he said that for emergency responders, "wrong information is even worse than lack of information."