A program that maps Washington’s public schools to assist first responders during shootings and other emergencies is about to go dark, and state officials are pointing fingers about who is to blame.
Funding for the Critical Incident Planning and Mapping System will lapse July 1, following a downturn in the traffic ticket revenues that support the program.
Sen. Andy Hill, the Senate’s chief budget writer, says the Legislature didn’t purposely cut the program this year, and that the group that administers it — the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs — made that call.
Meanwhile, the law enforcement group says the program wouldn’t be going away if the Legislature had provided the money needed to keep it alive.
This is something we need to fix.
State Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and chief Senate budget writer
Hill, R-Redmond, said he has asked Gov. Jay Inslee to try to find about $500,000 needed to sustain the mapping program until January, when the Legislature reconvenes and can appropriate permanent funds.
“This is something we need to fix,” Hill said this week.
But a spokeswoman for Inslee said the governor doesn’t have that ability, and that the issue is between the Legislature, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and the program vendor to resolve.
“There’s no discretionary fund the governor had access to,” said Jaime Smith of the governor’s office.
“If there were, as you can imagine, we’d be inundated with all sorts of requests from people who are unhappy with what the Legislature did with the budget.”
HOW IT WORKS
The statewide emergency preparedness system was created by the Legislature in 2003, after the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Local officials in Pierce County had been operating a similar system before that, but lawmakers thought it was something that should be implemented statewide.
The software program contains maps, blueprints, building photos and emergency plans for roughly 2,400 public facilities throughout the state, including all the state’s K-12 schools and community colleges.
According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the system has helped police and fire agencies safely evacuate a Vancouver high school during a bomb threat, initiate a lockdown when someone threatened to shoot people inside a Thurston County courthouse, and plan evacuation routes when a warehouse fire threatened chemical storage tanks.
2,407School and public facilities mapped under the Critical Incident Planning and Mapping System
7,042First responders statewide who can access system
5,210Building officials statewide who can use system
The system also helped authorities resolve a 2003 active shooter situation at Spokane’s Lewis and Clark High School.
About 7,000 first responders, as well as about 5,000 building administrators, can access the site information simultaneously to help them respond quickly in an emergency. Schools can also use the system to send emergency alerts to multiple agencies at once.
Many school districts also use the program to keep track of their emergency plans and log completed emergency drills.
“We would be very disappointed if this funding were to go away,” said Nathan Olson, spokesman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which oversees the state’s 295 school districts.
Yet the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs says the state hasn’t been providing enough money to operate the system for some time. For the past few years, the nonprofit has been subsidizing the emergency mapping program with about $55,000 per year of its own funds, said Mitch Barker,the association’s executive director.
That’s partly due to the Legislature’s decision during the recession to fund the program through a surcharge on traffic tickets, rather than using the general fund that pays for most state programs, Barker said.
We would be very disappointed if this funding were to go away.
Nathan Olson, spokesman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which oversees state’s 295 school districts
While the Legislature didn’t specifically single out the mapping program for a cut this year, lawmakers also didn’t provide the money to address a funding shortage when ticket revenues came in $1 million lower than expected, he said.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs chose to cut the school mapping program instead of a jail-booking program that notifies victims when their abusers are released, or a program to combat auto theft, which was the original target of the traffic ticket money, Barker said.
“We were faced with watering all three programs down more, and making each of them weaker and weaker and weaker, or cutting a program,” Barker said. “Our decision was we would have to stop providing the mapping oversight and give it back to the state, and they could find a home for it as they chose.”
Barker said he and other association officials made it clear to lawmakers the mapping program could get axed if the state didn’t add money.
But legislators said it took them by surprise.
“When this (issue) popped up a couple weeks ago, it was like, ‘I didn’t cut that. I wouldn’t cut that program. That’s a good program,’ ” said Hill, the Senate budget writer.
State Rep. Timm Ormsby, the newly appointed House budget writer, said he, too, was unaware that the program was at risk.
“There’s no resistance to trying to fund it, but the fact that we were ignorant about this contract ending and the ramifications of it is very unfortunate,” said Ormsby, D-Spokane.
After the contract for the mapping system expires June 30, the vendor will shut down the program and deliver the data it contains to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which will hand the information over to state officials.
It really puts people at risk in our state, and that’s our biggest concern going forward.
Tobey Bryant, CEO of Prepared Response, the company that provides mapping service to the state
From that point on, first responders and school districts will no longer be able to access the data online until the money is found to restart the program.
Ormsby says he doesn’t see how that can occur before the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Even then, the vendor would have to import the data into its system again, which could pose unforeseen problems, the company’s executives said.
Prepared Response, a Tacoma-based company that operates its Rapid Responder program in 27 states, has never needed to stop and restart the system on a statewide basis before, said CEO Tobey Bryant. Bryant said Washington state has invested $17 million in the program since its inception in 2003.
“It will difficult to re-input the data into the system, absolutely,” Bryant said.
“It really puts people at risk in our state, and that’s our biggest concern going forward.”
USEFUL FOR ‘REALLY LARGE SCALE EVENTS’
Barker, of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said it’s difficult to foresee what the consequences of losing the system will be, but it would be hyperbolic to say its absence will thrust children into immediate danger. “It’s far more complicated than that,” he said.
He noted that nowadays, authorities have other means of getting information during disasters and school shootings, including people inside buildings using their cellphones to call 911.
What’s more, emergencies such as school shootings often start and end so quickly that the incident is over before law enforcement officials have a chance to use the mapping system, Barker said.
That was the case at North Thurston High School in Lacey last year, when a teenager opened fire in a stairway and the school’s commons area. The shooter, who authorities said was looking to commit “suicide by cop,” was tackled by a teacher and placed in handcuffs by a school resource officer before police needed to use the mapping system. No one was hurt in that incident.
It’s one of those things where you don’t really know how much you need it until you need it.
Rich Yelenich, director of school safety for North Thurston Public Schools
Rich Yelenich, North Thurston’s director of school safety, said local police are familiar enough with the district’s buildings that they don’t need to use the mapping system in most cases.
He said it would come in handy, however, during “really large scale events,” such an earthquake or a prolonged hostage situation in which multiple outside agencies are called to assist.
“It’s really something that if it did go away, we would miss just having that confidence, or the security of knowing that information is available,” Yelenich said.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t really know how much you need it until you need it.”
The most recent time the system came in handy during a major emergency was in November, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs officials said, when a school bus in the Monroe School District was stranded due to flooded roads and a fatal accident.
District officials used the emergency alert system to communicate with each other and to notify the bus driver where to take students to safety.
“It worked great,” said district spokeswoman Rosemary O'Neil. “It made sure we were all on the same page.”
Prepared Response said the system also was used seven times in the past week to help with smaller incidents, including a building evacuation due to a gas leak and a student’s medical emergency.
Hill said that although he’s worried about emergencies not being covered by the system between now and January, he doesn’t think lawmakers will have any problem finding a way to restore the program’s funding once they return to Olympia next year.
“We’ll fix it up when we get back,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of partisan wrangling over something like that.”
Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.