EMERGENCY CREWS Technological advances can turn would-be tragedy into triumph

The Columbine High School tragedy sparked interest in new ways of preparing for emergency situations.
A fire rages through an elementary school. Children remain trapped inside, screaming for help, as thick black smoke billows from second-story windows.
On the way to the school, the firefighters review a 3-D image of the building's interior on the fire engine's computer, pinpointing and marking the best and safest entry locations.
When they arrive, a firefighter grabs the thermal imaging camera, takes the lead and they all enter the building. Through the opaque smoke that has filled the hallways, the camera spots every child. In less than five minutes, the building is clear.
This fictional scenario could happen, and thanks to two important devices, chances have never been better that a possible tragedy could end in triumph.
Finding floor plans: The newest is Interactive Tactical Group's Virtual Floor Plans. Using a special digital camera that can photograph a 360-degree room, the images appear as three-dimensional digital layouts. When downloaded into QuickTime VR, an Apple Computers product, the user can look around the room as if a video camera was sitting in the center, zooming in or out to any spot. The layouts can easily be stored on a CD-ROM.
"It would certainly be beneficial," said George Brown, Howland Township fire chief. Howland does not have the new technology. "I know after the Columbine shootings, the fire department took photos of all the schools in case of an emergency. But this sounds like it would be easier."
Prompting invention: That is part of the reason ITG founder Michael Quan developed the technology.
"We read the headlines and watch TV like everyone else, and we saw a potential here for police, firefighters and schools," he said.
The shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado sparked a lot of interest in the product among school officials, Quan said.
"You have to have information about schools in a form that is accessible and easily workable," he said. "That way, if an incident occurs, a police officer or someone could put a CD-ROM into a computer in their cars and have a realistic layout of the building before they even get there."
ITG charges about $9,500 for 50 to 60 views, each of which can be an entire room, depending on the room's size. The technology is only a few years old and has not yet been widely publicized or heavily adopted.
"This is the first I've heard of it," said Boardman Township fire chief Jim Dorman. "I don't know that anybody's really aware of it yet, but we're wide open for innovation."
Thermal cameras: The hot items right now for both police and firefighters are thermal imaging cameras. Though they have been around for a number of years, their prices have dropped recently and made them more attractive. The types commonly used by police and fire departments cost between $13,000 and $20,000.
The cameras identify and display the heat released from the body -- some in vivid color -- so firefighters can locate people in a burning building or police can locate a fleeing suspect in the dark.
"We just got two new cameras this year," said John O'Neill, Youngstown's fire chief. "It took us many years to get those. The costs were so high, we had to wait five or six years."
O'Neill said the cameras have also helped locate areas in walls where a fire might have spread, avoiding a rekindling.
Law enforcement officials use the cameras for a number of different things. In a quick scan, the camera unveils fleeing suspects hiding behind cars or running through dark alleys, eliminating the danger of an invisible assailant.
"I was watching something about three or four days ago where the Coast Guard was using them," said Gordon Ellis, Austintown Township police chief. "They used the camera to locate inside the ship where the people were standing and where the engines were, so [when they fired warning shots] they didn't hit anybody or shoot an engine and blow up the ship.
"It just amazes me how much technology has changed our lives and our work fields. I wonder what it will be like in 20 years."

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