Homeland Security and Public Safety

Virtual Alabama Grows as More Schools Join Map Safety Program

The Alabama Department of Homeland Security began developing the Internet-based program in 2005 using Google Maps technology.

Blueprint mural

(MCT) — While Anniston, Ala., schools have not been the scene of the sort of firearm violence that has struck other schools around the country in recent years, district officials and others across the state are taking steps to permit a safer outcome if such a situation develops.

The tactic: To let all first responders know the layout of the school before an emergency arises. 

During the summer, detailed 3-D virtual maps were created revealing the nooks and crannies inside each of Anniston City Schools’ seven school buildings, at a cost to the district of between $2,000 and $3,000 per school, said Superintendent Darren Douthitt.

That information will soon be accessible to police, firefighters and other first responders in the event of emergencies, he said.

“It’s another layer of security,” Douthitt said.

The Alabama Department of Homeland Security began developing the Internet-based program, now called Virtual Alabama, in 2005 using Google Maps technology. Since then, the program has broadened to include schools, hospital and universities.

The program allows first responders and administrators at each agency online access to detailed, 3-D images and layered information including emergency safety plans, the locations of hazardous materials, evacuation routes, places designated as safety zones in the event of disasters, and, in some cases, live video surveillance feeds.

The program is a joint initiative of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security, the State Department of Education, the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, and the Auburn University at Montgomery Center for Government.

Currently, the program has more than 36,000 users at more than 3,000 agencies, using imagery from every county in Alabama, according to Virtual Alabama’s website.

Douthitt predicts that by the end of September, local first responders will have access to Anniston schools through the program.

Privacy is a concern when it comes to having access to school’s surveillance cameras, said Lamar Davis, senior project lead with the Center for Government and Public Affairs at Auburn University at Montgomery. He’s also the project manager for Virtual Alabama, for which the university is responsible for providing outreach and mapping services.

Virtual Alabama is only open to education and government officials, Davis said, and it’s up to each superintendent how many people in any given agency can access a district’s surveillance video feeds.

Virtual Alabama costs the Alabama Department of Education nothing, wrote spokeswoman Malissa Valdes-Hubert in an email to The Star. The program is funded by the state’s Department of Homeland Security. A spokesman for the federal agency on Tuesday was not able to immediately provide the program’s annual cost.

“A lot of people reacted to Newtown,” Douthitt said, speaking about the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut that killed 20 students and six staff members. “I’d rather have it and not need it, because we want to make sure our kids and our staff as safe as possible.”

Attempts to reach several other local school superintendents were unsuccessful Tuesday. Many superintendents were in meetings and training sessions preparing for the start of school, district officials said Tuesday.

Roy Bennett, student services coordinator for Oxford City schools, said the district had each of its schools mapped in recent years. Asked who has access to the sensitive information, including video surveillance, Bennett said that is not made public so as to prevent someone from trying to illegally access the program.

In the chaotic moments during an emergency having instant access to that detailed information is critical for first responders, Bennett said.

Form a policing standpoint, Virtual Alabama is a powerful tool, explained Anniston police Chief Shane Denham. Denham attended a meeting at Anniston High on the program several years ago. Some of the features discussed at that meeting, such as access to video surveillance, have taken some time to implement, but Denham said “it’s still a very helpful system. In theory, I could sit at my desk and monitor what’s going on at the school.”

Police use Virtual Alabama to safeguard more than schools, Denham explained. Anniston police have used the program to visually study residential homes before carrying out arrest warrants, he said.

Davis said through the use of satellite and aerial imagery, police can access the program to study the topography around residential homes. Virtual Alabama also displays parcel information, including the names of those who own the property, but it does not show 3-D virtual interior maps of private homes, Davis said.

Currently, Auburn University at Montgomery’s Virtual Alabama experts are working to get the remaining schools mapped and into the system, Davis said, and the 14-person staff is continuously training school administrators on how to use the system. About 1,300 of the state’s 1,500 or so schools have been mapped through the program, he said.

“There’s such a large turnover in schools. Training is constant,” he said.

Schools can have the best safety plan in place, Davis said, but if districts can’t quickly share it with first responders “it’s of no use.”

©2014 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.