SAFER System Creates Situational Awareness Between Schools, Responders

System provides real-time video, photos and data on all 45 schools in the Frisco, Texas, Independent School District.

by / August 5, 2011
Photo courtesy of the Frisco Police Department Frisco Police Department

This is what collaboration looks like.

It started with a Frisco, Texas, Independent School District official at a national education conference admiring some software that gave first responders inside information, like floor plans, on a school district in case they have to respond to an incident at one of the schools. Independent School District officials sat down with city officials, including representatives from the Frisco police and fire departments and the city’s IT staff to gauge buying the off-the-shelf software. But during discussions, they realized they could do it better themselves with existing resources.

What resulted is the Situational Awareness for Emergency Response (SAFER) system, which provides police, fire and emergency medical responders with real-time video, still photos and data on all 45 schools in the district. So when first responders are called to a situation at one of the schools, they can view floor plans, live video (in some cases) and photos of the building, providing situational awareness not experienced before SAFER, which was conceived in 2008 and became fully operational in 2009.

“Previously we didn’t have the plans from the school so officers were going there blind,” said Lt. Jason Jenkins of the Frisco Police Department. “Unless they’d been there before, they were going with no expectation of the layout of the school other than what they could see from the outside.”

Jenkins said SAFER has been especially helpful to the night shift, which is accustomed to responding to multiple alarms at the same time. “The officers are saving a lot of time when the alarms are going off and assessing where they really need to focus.”

The fire department used to carry around drawings of the inside of the schools to use when it arrived on a call. Just viewing the drawings and gathering situational awareness could take several minutes. Now it’s as easy as calling up the schools “intelligence” on the mobile data computer (MDC).

In addition to the geo-referenced floor plans and the live video feeds from more than 2,000 cameras, first responders have access to hazardous materials inventory, aerial maps, Pictometry, contact information for school officials and automated vehicle location (AVL).

“Not only can we do the whiteboard-type thing, but you also have the AVL integrated into it so you could be working with a really large incident and drop a hazardous materials plume into the map,” said Assistant Fire Chief Paul Siebert. “You can communicate that information out to fire and
police. In the past, verbal descriptions over the radio was how you relayed that.”

Siebert cited an example of how SAFER has already been successful. Police and fire were called to an incident where police had set up a barricade. On the way there, the fire department called up information from the area on the MDC and figured out where to go. “We asked [police on the scene] ‘Do you want us at this intersection?’” Siebert said. “We reduced maybe five minutes on the radio and stayed out of the way.”

SAFER has allowed the fire department to reduce its response level when it’s determined through the system that the call isn’t for a disastrous incident.

For example, when a call comes in about a fire inside a building, the department automatically sends three engines, a truck, an ambulance, heavy rescue and a chief. “We were en route to one of the schools and we were able to see that school was operating normally, that kids were walking down the hallways, so we recognized that it may not be as critical an alarm as it seemed,” Siebert said.

They then reduced the lights and sirens to just the chief’s vehicle and the first two engines. “That reduces the risk to the traveling public,” Siebert said. “We’re going through intersections, and it also reduces the wear and tear on the trucks.”

Morphing Into Phase Two

All involved said SAFER has enhanced a spirit of collaboration that was already in place, thus its success.

“The beginning of this project was really just trying to help the school district find a solution that they wanted to put into the field for both police and fire,” Siebert said. “They actually listened to the city tell them that we could probably do it better than what they could find on the market and that we just needed to look at it as a partnership.”

When everyone agreed to use some of the existing software and hardware and just “fill in the gaps” the effort began to educate the IT department on what exactly was needed. IT staff spent four months with police and fire, learning and asking questions.

“From a data perspective, we had to create the school floor plans, put in all the cameras and give that information back to the firefighters who then went and did inspections to provide us more detailed information about the schools,” said Susan Olson from the IT department.

The fire department collected notes on the location of individual rooms, where hazardous materials were stored and other information that might be valuable when approaching a scene. IT then mapped all that information.

“We also did GPS units for all the fire apparatus and then just enabled the GPS feed from the video cameras with police,” Olson said. “We were able to grab the GPS location from [police] video cameras they already had in their vehicles. That’s how we introduced GPS and AVL into the mix.”

Police and fire’s existing MDCs were upgraded. Now there’s a mix of Panasonic Toughbooks and Dell computers. IT purchased GeoCom software to build the platform.

The school district had put aside $400,000 for a software program and agreed to use those funds for this project.

“That’s why we focused on the schools because that’s where Phase One started out: with the school district looking for that solution to make sure the police and fire departments had the information they wanted in the field so they could rest assured their schools were as safe as they could make them,” Siebert said.

The city will fund the maintenance and support of the project, as well as Phase Two, which will replicate the project with commercial buildings in the city. Phase Two won’t be as extensive as Phase One because of the sheer numbers of commercial buildings. It may not include video but will be updated as often as twice a year with each fire inspection.

“We’re getting our pre-fire plans into the system, the plans that the firefighters go out and do on each of the buildings,” Siebert said. “As those go into the system, they aren’t going to have the level of detail and level of interaction that the schools have, but again we’re putting that information in front of the fire officer or police supervisor where they didn’t have it before.”

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at