Opinion

Washington must protect maps to preserve school safety

From the editorial board

Emergency responders from nearly 30 regional agencies descended on the Sound Puget Sound Community College campus for an active shooter drill in 2015. Law enforcement also would rely on a centralized state mapping system to help in the event of a real mass shooting.
Emergency responders from nearly 30 regional agencies descended on the Sound Puget Sound Community College campus for an active shooter drill in 2015. Law enforcement also would rely on a centralized state mapping system to help in the event of a real mass shooting. Olympian file photo, 2015

From Orlando to Columbine to a grievous number of active-shooter episodes in between, first responders can vouch for the value of having accurate site maps of the scene. It’s no exaggeration to call them a matter of life and death.

The extent to which the three-hour emergency response at Sunday’s nightclub massacre in Orlando was affected by the layout of the building remains unclear. But Pulse employees – including a worker who escaped the club, and a bartender trapped inside – have said they provided diagrams for police in the early-morning hours before officers made their final assault, breaching a bathroom wall and killing gunman Omar Mateen.

The Columbine High School slaughter of 1999 opened the nation’s eyes to the need for reliable school maps. When SWAT teams arrived after reports of shots fired, they were hampered by old blueprints predating a campus remodel, leading them to believe the cafeteria and library were on the opposite side of the school.

Seventeen years later, Washington families can breathe a bit easier. Evacuation routes, floor plans and critical infrastructure at all public K-12 schools and colleges are mapped, stored and accessible to emergency crews. A company with Tacoma offices, Prepared Response, runs the state’s Critical Incident Planning and Mapping System.

It seems unfathomable that the system was on the verge of being unplugged this summer.

News Tribune statehouse writer Melissa Santos reported last weekend that the system would run out of money this month. She traced it to a mixup between state legislators and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Gov. Jay Inslee was left to fix the fiasco.

Before the story published, governor’s office staffers said they didn’t have the means to rescue the program. But by Tuesday, they said they’d devised a creative scheme to move money between funds.

Due credit goes to Inslee for releasing the $500,000 to keep the program running this year. And let this be a lesson to legislative budget writers: Please don’t fall asleep at the wheel again next year. Don’t let student safety be a casualty in the hurly burly of drafting a two-year budget that will, by Supreme Court order, include billions more dollars for public education.

South Sound school districts have wisely bolstered security measures in recent years, and their taxpayers have picked up the check. Tacoma’s 2013 school bond is paying for features in new and remodeled schools, such as roller blinds on classroom windows and “Columbine” locks on interior doors. New schools in the Clover Park district have a single button to lock down an entire building, recessed cameras in hallway ceilings and a video system so staff members in the reception area can see who's approaching the main entrance.

On local college and K-12 campuses, active-shooter drills are staged regularly enough that neighbors hardly bat an eyelid.

Such precautions are unpleasantly necessary in a world waiting for the next Omar Mateen, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold to snap. But if emergency crews respond tentatively to a call because of outdated maps and building plans, the preparations could be all for naught.

Listen to Rich Yelenich, the safety director for the North Thurston School District, where a high school student opened fire last year in an incident that ended blessedly fast, with no injuries.

"It's one of those things,” Yelenich said of the state mapping system, “where you don't really know how much you need it until you need it."

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