Hazmat High

High school students learn GIS and help with emergency planning

by / December 31, 1997

By Bill McGarigle
Contributing Editor


"Students that come out of Chelsea High School with this knowledge are far ahead of anybody else -- they're ahead of professional department managers who haven't had some of the training these students have had."

This comment by Allan Alpert, director of Emergency Management for Chelsea, Mass., reflects his assessment of a successful educational experiment in which a beginning GIS class teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) to help the community meet federally-mandated guidelines for emergency preparedness and response capabilities. Based on the benefits to all involved, the project -- the first of its kind in the country -- might well become a model curriculum for integrating GIS into secondary education.

The tiny, 1.8-square-mile city of Chelsea is home to 30,000, predominantly blue-collar workers on Boston's northeast border. Long known as a first home for immigrants, it is also one of the poorest communities in the state, with a per capita income of $11,559. Its school district, on the verge of financial collapse in 1989, was put under the management of Boston University. In 1991, the city itself slid into bankruptcy and was taken over by the state. A subsequent FBI investigation into corruption resulted in the indictment of three former mayors.

However, with financial assistance from the state and continued management by B.U., Chelsea is gradually turning things around. In 1995, the city emerged from receivership, and in 1996, it opened three new educational complexes; one combining four separate elementary schools; another combining two middle schools; and one high school -- the first public schools built in the city in 87 years.

Complimenting the opening of the new Chelsea High School (CHS) was an introductory course in GIS, which was put together by Walter Paul, an ex-cabinet maker-turned-teacher, and Bill Hamilton, a geography guru from nearby Salem State College.

Inspired by Dr. Richard Audet, assistant professor of Education at Roger Williams University, Paul took a GIS course in the summer of 1996 that was conducted by Hamilton. By the end of the summer, and with the enthusiastic support of CHS, Paul installed a spatial learning lab with 22 new computers, a printer, scanner, plotter and two laptops. With grant support from B.U., he persuaded Hamilton to come onboard half time as a consultant. In the fall, CHS had an elective, two-semester GIS course and a fully-equipped computer lab.

Curriculum Meets Community Needs

The first semester introduced the computers and basic GIS skills. Students began with computer literacy and Windows 95 and then moved into GIS with ArcView 3.0. Combined lectures and labs ran five hours a week. Paul was assisted by Hamilton and Laurie Berger, an undergraduate student working on a combined degree in GIS and education at Salem State.

During an inspection of the new school facilities, HAZMAT (Hazardous Material) Fire Captain Bill Sullivan asked if the class could assist the community in collecting and entering information into databases for the Local Emergency Planning Committee.

The information was needed to meet federally-mandated guidelines for emergency-response and preparedness capabilities. All federal, state and local governments with hazardous materials in their jurisdictions are required by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act to develop such capabilities. They are also required to conduct an EPA-observed simulated response to a HAZMAT incident.

EPA Software

The software system designed to facilitate these requirements is CAMEO (Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations), a Windows-based GIS developed by the EPA and NOAA. CAMEO has a built-in information database of 6,000 chemicals and is linked to a mapping program called MARPLOT (Mapping Application for Response and Planning of Local Operational Tasks) and ALOHA (Areal Locations of Hazardous Atmospheres), a program that plots toxic plumes by using meteorological and chemical data. Both programs are on separate CD-ROMs. Base maps and data for CAMEO are provided by census and TIGER files.

MARPLOT databases are populated with layers of icons that represent the locations of daycare centers, hospitals, schools, businesses that use chemicals, chemical storage sites, emergency-response resources, building floor plans, evacuation routes, and information contained in Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which accompany the shipment and storage of all toxic materials. The databases also include emergency contact information for each business or public facility.

When a HAZMAT incident occurs, emergency-response personnel can pull up site-related information; establish the location and the type of chemical involved; take meteorological readings with handheld instruments; plot the dispersal pattern of the plume; and determine the resources and actions needed to contain and eliminate the danger. From the census files, they can assess who is at risk and establish a priority evacuation plan.

Putting the Project Together

Capt. Sullivan offered students an opportunity to solve real-world problems by collecting and inputting information that would actually be used for the safety of the community. The project would save local government hundreds of man-hours of data collection and processing.

The teachers checked out the CAMEO system supplied by EPA Environmental Scientist Leonard Wallace and confirmed that the operations required for data entry were within the students' capabilities. CAMEO could provide all of the GIS tools needed for the project.

Much of the early HAZMAT curriculum dealt with basic problem-solving skills and community knowledge, studying of city government, learning how business operates, and studying regulations governing the handling of toxic materials. "The process helped students to see Chelsea as a political entity within the scope of state, regional and national laws applying to HAZMATs," Paul explained.

EMS Supervisor Scott Watson and Chelsea students Dario Vukovic, Quang Luu and Sang Luu (l to r) prepare for the simulated chemical spill.


Emergency response personnel came to the class and talked about the operations and responsibilities of the different agencies. The fire captain provided a database that enabled students to populate MARPLOT with all of the city's HAZMAT information, and Laurie Berger wrote lessons for processing the data into CAMEO and MARPLOT.

"All of these activities," Wallace added, "helped students to see firsthand how important the data really is, [and] that it is crucial in making decisions about community health and safety. Failure to evacuate a school or apartment building could result in serious injuries or even death."

Data Collection and Entry

Students and Emergency Management prepared letters to selected businesses in the city and set up appointments. The students then went out and, on behalf of LEPC, collected floor plans, evacuation routes, contact personnel information and Material Safety Data Sheets associated with HAZMAT storage and shipments.

Before the first semester ended, the new project was under way. It took most of the year to collect and enter the information. In the process, students learned enough about CAMEO to do health and risk assessments by simulating plumes over different areas and then pulling up census data to see what the impact would be in that part of the city.

More Involvement for students

Toward the end of the school year, the project was expanded to include a simulated HAZMAT release that involved a chemical plant and the new elementary school complex. The entire scenario and mitigation process was to be carried out by students playing the roles of command officers. They would see firsthand how an incident unfolds and how their work is used. The plan required liability releases from parents and close communication with the school superintendent and principal.

A month before the exercise, the Office of Emergency Management provided actual job descriptions and, with the teachers, coached students on the roles they would play as command officers in a HAZMAT event. The students went on field trips to see different fire stations and the Chelsea Emergency Management Command Post, which would be set up in the event of a HAZMAT event. They learned about public safety and the different equipment and what it is used for. They also learned how to operate two-way radios and take meteorological readings with handheld weather instruments provided by the EPA. Alpert recalled that, at first, some of the students had no idea what a two-way radio was. "We stood over their shoulders and walked them through it. They were going to be the ones to tell the emergency response units where to go and not to go, where the plume is, where people are going to be in jeopardy, and where it is safe to go -- using all the information they gathered and put into the computer."

The 45-minute simulated event involved units of the Chelsea Fire and Police Depts., the School Dept., the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the regional ambulance service.

Emergency Management set up a mobile command post outside the school complex, and EPA brought in air monitoring instruments and interfaced them with the CAMEO program, which was operating on a laptop. Students set up an operations center in one of the school offices and plotted the plume. They directed the "evacuation" by sending orders to the mobile command post via runners. Personnel in the command post took the information and used simulated broadcasts to send the orders to the appropriate public safety agency.

The event was low key -- no sirens or rushing traffic. Communications were confined to the immediate site, and instead of children actually evacuating the building, they were represented by students wearing signs identifying their condition. "With our help," said Alpert, "they called the shots as they thought things should be done."

Success Generates Support

According to everyone involved, the year-long project was a resounding success. LEPC is currently working with CHS on plans for a larger table-top simulation, to be followed up at some point by an actual, functional exercise. In recognition of the program's value to education and the community, Bell Atlantic -- under its Metropolitan School-to-Career GIS Initiative -- gave a grant to the city of Chelsea and seven other communities to develop and expand this curriculum at their high schools. Funding has already enabled CHS to conduct summer GIS training programs for teachers and administrators, with a $500 professional-development stipend for attendees. Through its own grant program, EPA is making CAMEO available to high schools in communities that have received the Bell Atlantic grant.

Experience Is A Plus

Wallace says EPA is also working with CHS to market the students' skills. "We are going to invite companies to the school and show them this project, [and] let them know that if they need people who can fill out environmental reports or do data entry -- part time or in the summer -- they don't need to look outside the community. The talent is here."

The GIS program at Chelsea High began with 16 students; this year the class is full and there is a waiting list. Since the semester ended, several students have expressed interest in public safety careers. Alpert tells them that the training and experience they have may one day benefit them as municipal employees.

Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communication and information technology.

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