Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

College Students’ Response System Creates a Legacy of Safety

Atlantic Cape Community College students get hands-on education while building a sophisticated emergency response management system.

Colleges have traditionally been transitory places — students come in, fill up on theory and head out into the real world leaving little trace of having been at the campus. But with the availability of easy-to-use mobile technology, students at Atlantic Cape Community College, located in south New Jersey, will have a lasting impact on the safety of the campus even after they’re gone.

The students in Atlantic Cape’s Geospatial Workforce Education Program are getting practical, hands-on education by using rugged handheld computers to build a campuswide emergency response management system. The idea is that emergency responders will have highly detailed, useful information at their fingertips if an emergency arises on the campus in the future.

Instead of copying existing GIS curriculum, the program was designed to the needs of
the marketplace. That started with two courses: introduction to GIS and geospatial data collection. As Luis Olivieri, senior manager of the GIS program, considered the technology needs for the courses, he knew simple GPS units were sufficient for the introductory course. However, they wouldn’t do for data collection; he needed to find something more suitable. In his words, he wanted to “put students in the field using a real handheld device with more capabilities than a basic GPS unit.”

Integrating New Technology

Although Olivieri doesn’t teach the geospatial data collection course, he helped design it and saw an opportunity to accomplish two important goals with one piece of curriculum. He and the course instructor believe students need real-life experience, not just book learning. And a recent Safe Campus Initiative program called for developing a “support system at Atlantic Cape to effectively respond to potential emergencies and manage crises.”

Voila: A class project to create a data-driven emergency response management system was developed.

Here’s how it works: The GIS students spread out across the campus and gather data. When they’re outside, students use the Nautiz X7’s GPS capability to georeference their location as they enter data, supplementing the GPS coordinates by cross-referencing locations on aerial photographs of the campus that are preloaded on the device. Inside buildings, they can note locations on building floor plans, which also are loaded on the handheld. (The students also cross-check building floor plans against the actual layout to find changes or discrepancies.)

As the students establish where they are, they note the location of building entrances and emergency exits; classrooms, laboratories and offices; fire extinguishers, sprinklers and alarms; electrical shut-offs; hazardous materials — anything an emergency responder would benefit from knowing. They enter their notations directly into the X7 using the Esri ArcPad program and also take contextual photos with the device’s 3-megapixel camera.

After students gather information, they return the handheld to a lab and upload the data to a central server using ArcPad.

“In the past, the students would have had to carry around a big paper map, find a spot they need to enter, make handwritten notes on a notepad, and then come back to the lab and enter the data manually,” Olivieri said. “This is unimaginably better.”

The next step is to distribute the data. The program’s goal is straightforward: “In an emergency, time is very important. It could be the difference between life and death,” Olivieri said. “We are putting together the data required for emergency personnel to act in the fastest possible way.”

The school wants a system in which police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other emergency responders can respond more quickly and effectively.

In the long-term plan, the data the students gather may be cross-referenced to everything from class schedules to individual information on students, staff and professors. That would provide a highly helpful level of detail in an emergency-response circumstance.

The Value of Detailed Data

Olivieri provided some examples — worst-case scenarios — of the kind of situations that schools, government facilities or businesses must be ready for even if the odds are long that they’ll ever occur.

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