YAKIMA, Wash. — Within minutes of an ammonia leak at a Zillah fruit warehouse in December, teams at each school in town began carrying out plans designed for just such an incident.

A modified lockdown was initiated, meaning students could move within schools but couldn’t leave the buildings. That included visitors participating in a robotics competition at Zillah Middle School.

Parents were messaged with the latest information.

And in real time, a computer modeling system based in Yakima was showing Zillah school officials how far the ammonia plume might reach.

The school district’s quick response to the potentially dangerous situation resulted from extensive planning and help from the School Safety Operations & Coordination Center. Opened just three months ago, it operates out of a room that features a cluster of flat screen monitors and is run by Educational Service District 105, which provides a wide range of services to school districts in Kittitas and Yakima counties and parts of Grant and Klickitat counties, reported the Yakima Herald-Republic (http://bit.ly/2j6YVHT).

Sixteen school districts are linked to the room, which allows staff to remotely access and control school security cameras at certain buildings, lock and unlock doors and even control water and gas utility lines. They can see a list of who entered each door using access cards, get satellite views of buildings as well as access school building room maps.

In the center’s first three months, participating school districts have responded quickly to the ammonia leak, a suicide attempt and other incidents, such as a 9-year-old runaway from one school who was found within half an hour. Rumors of murderous clowns — which exploded on social media and alarmed parents — were contained when schools used mobile alerts provided through the center to convey accurate information.

“The scary clown incident produced the most activity,” said Chris Weedin, technology coordinator for ESD 105. “That happened on day three of our operation.”

The center uses SafePointe, an online system that compiles a multitude of information in real time and displays it on large, flat screen monitors. It also uses a mobile application known as InPointe, a notification tool that enables communication during emergency incidents. Both systems are offered by Yakima-based 4QTRS Holdings.

Schools can choose the level of services available. Such services are increasingly valuable as schools face safety threats that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. It all comes down to timely and accurate information, instant and efficient communication and the best response to each situation — all potentially before emergency responders arrive.

SafePointe doesn’t replace any school safety technology, Weedin has noted. It just gives its users a central place to manage it, which makes it faster and more convenient.

“We’re not here to replace emergency responders,” Weedin said. “We want to be the hub where that all comes together.”

The safety center’s main goal is help schools create a safety management plan. Because ultimately, schools want to ensure that safety issues don’t arise in the first place.

“We are a situational manager. We pride ourselves on prevention,” Weedin said.

Four video monitors hang on a wall of the safety center office. On a recent day, one monitor offered an aerial view of Union Gap Elementary, with another providing real-time views from a few of the school’s several cameras.

In 2013, the Union Gap School District was the first in Yakima County to install the SafePointe program, said Randy Town, who works part-time as the school safety and security coordinator for ESD 105. He was in Zillah coordinating response efforts on the day of the ammonia leak.

Town, who has 28 years of experience in law enforcement, including 20 years with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, said the school safety office’s resources also address responses to such incidents as injured students, bullying threats, rumors of fights or drug activity.

School districts are required by state law to create their own safety plans for potential situations based on their locations. For instance, Naches Valley Elementary School, which is within 1,000 feet of a fruit warehouse, has an emergency response policy with the warehouse to assure communication if there is an event, such as an ammonia leak.

School safety took on new urgency in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in December 2012 as school leaders sought better ways to respond quickly to dangerous and potentially deadly situations. Staff can’t wait for authorities; they must manage those incidents and inform parents immediately.

After Sandy Hook, ESD 105 started meeting with the sheriff’s office and others to discuss school safety.

By 2013, it had organized the Regional School Safety Cooperative, which involves 23 member school districts, including Heritage University, and several emergency response agencies. By 2015, ESD 105 began hosting InPointe and SafePointe servers. And last fall, the safety center opened with a full-time staffer — Camille Becker, previously with the Yakima Police Department — to monitor operations.

While Becker’s desk faces the four screens, she’s not watching them constantly. As school safety technician for the center, she’s often in contact with superintendents; she had to duck out of a recent visit for a phone call with one.

“We help school districts lay out their school safety assets top to bottom,” Weedin noted. “We organize their operation, from cameras to policy to drilling checks.”

That’s the operation side. On the coordination side, the safety office’s main job is to provide clear communication to schools during times of crisis, Weedin said. “A key aspect of preparedness is communications,” he added.

The safety office helps school districts develop crisis management plans, such as what Zillah district officials followed in responding to the ammonia leak.

“If something does happen, schools will be prepared,” Town said.

Though a part-timer, Town conducts a lot of training. He helps schools identify physical security concerns, assess their facilities and identify safety gaps.

Town prefers to get into security discussions even before buildings are constructed.

“I can work with architects. That’s where we like to get in our influence, providing consultation,” he said.

In addition to monitoring and potentially controlling access to school buildings, some safety center options can keep administrators apprised of situations happening beyond campus boundaries. SafePointe offers 911 Geofencing, short for geographic fencing, which notifies the school safety office as law enforcement agencies are dispatched to the scene of an incident that includes a school within a certain radius.

“When a unit is dispatched within that radius, we get a call and see details of that call,” Weedin said. “(Becker) analyzes that and assesses that call, and makes the determination ?if we should notify the school.”

It’s all to ensure that kids are safe — and feel safe, Town said.


Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com