Among the many disturbing truths that came to light following the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School was that it took Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold only 16 minutes to kill 13 people and wound 21 others. But it took police three hours and 14 minutes to find all of them.
One of the contributing factors to the highly criticized law enforcement response to the shooting was that police were using outdated floor plans to guide them in their search. They mistakenly believed the cafeteria and library, where nearly all of the murders occurred, were on the east side of the school. But they had been relocated four years earlier to the west side.
More than 19 years later, police nationwide are still lacking crucial information about a school’s layout and what’s inside it when they respond to a shooting or other dangerous situation, experts say.
This, however, is no longer the case for Anaheim High School, the first school in the nation to have its every nook and cranny digitally mapped and the files made accessible to first responders on their computers, tablets or phones.
“This is a game changer,” said Julian Harvey, interim chief of the Anaheim Police Department in an interview. “It dramatically changes the way and manner in which we respond to incidents at schools.”
The system is the brainchild of David Sobel, a former Escondido cop who 18 years ago opened his own San Diego-based security consulting firm, The Sobel Group. Sobel said he came up with the concept a decade ago, but had to wait for the technology to catch up before his idea could be turned into something usable for first responders and affordable to schools and other institutions.
Sobel is debuting his system just over two months after the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., brought the scourge of school shootings back into the nation’s consciousness. Several new bills focused on school safety are currently circulating through Sacramento, including proposals to arm teachers, staff schools with mental health professionals and mandate the locking of classroom doors.
At Anaheim High, Sobel and his crew took more than 15,000 360-degree, high-resolution images — documenting every inch of the school where a human being can go, from hallways, offices and classrooms to closets, lofts and crawl spaces, Sobel said.
“The images are so high resolution that you can put them on a big screen in a command center and literally see something written on a whiteboard,” he said.
The images were then loaded into a system that also includes up-to-date floor plans of the school, making it possible for those on the scene and in the command center to see a split-screen, with the image of a room or hallway on one side and the floor plan on the other. This allows first responders to simultaneously do a virtual walk-through of the building and track where they are on the floor plan.
“It reduces the danger and response time for first responders, while assisting in locating a suspect,” Harvey said in a release that preceded a Tuesday news conference. “It won’t prevent a shooting, but we know that time is of the essence when dealing with those situations.”
The system would be especially useful in a situation where a suspect has barricaded himself, and perhaps hostages, in a room, Harvey said. Officers responding would not only be able to pull up information about what’s behind a door — including the number of desks, windows and rear doors — but also the material the door is made of and its locking mechanism.
Harvey added that the system could also be a lifesaver in the event of a fire. “We will know what materials are in there, what can burn, whether there are caustic chemicals,” he said. “It is just a big step in terms of our situational awareness.”
Sobel said it took between three and four weeks to do the digital mapping of Anaheim High and load the images into the system. The price tag for the product is between $25,000 and $30,000 for a large high school, with the cost going down for smaller schools and up for college and university campuses.
“Anaheim was first because the showed a lot of interest and moved quickly,” said Sobel, adding that several San Diego County schools are in the pipeline.
He estimates that if he were able to properly scale up the operation, it would take about five to seven years to implement the system in the majority of the nation’s schools. Next on the list are the North Orange Continuing Education campus, which is also in Anaheim, and Ramona High School in San Diego County.
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