Feb. 16, 2005 - The Marana Volunteer Patrol, known as the "VIPs," is working on a new high-tech Emergency Response System that will change the way first responders handle emergency calls.

The VIPs currently are on a foot mission, downloading and storing information about all of the town's most vulnerable areas, including schools, churches, hospitals, shopping centers and service stations.

In collaboration with Marana Police Department, Northwest Fire and Rescue District, and the town's GIS department, first responders will have much more detailed information when arriving at a scene when the system is complete, said Jack Avis, the town's GIS manager.

Each year, the town acquires visual satellite information, but currently there is little or no information about school sites, Avis said. Most information is available on building plans, which aren't readily available when responding to an emergency.

"It just seemed logical that schools or public places - where the greatest cost of life could occur - would be the target at this time," Avis said. "We felt it was a vulnerability."

Bob Salerno, a member of the volunteer patrol, is one of more than a dozen VIPs at work on the project. He said the system will eliminate time wasted looking around a scene, reduce property damage, and possibly save some lives.

"When we go to a school, for example, we locate all entrances, exits, electric panels, gas lines, water lines, PA systems and fire hydrants," Salerno said. Hazardous materials stored on a property also are entered into the database, so firefighters and police can pinpoint those areas when an emergency call comes in, he said.

The volunteers will pinpoint their locations on aerial photographs, compiling a database of graphic information that will be available across a townwide network as well as in the fire department's laptop computers, Avis said. Any limited access issues, such as gates, also will be noted.

Avis said the project began out of a citizens council that assessed vulnerability in the community and came up with the idea as a Homeland Security initiative. The town has to assess its vulnerability to be in compliance with a countywide program for emergency mitigation planning.

Avis said there are about 14 to 16 volunteers involved in the project, paired up into two-man teams. Two sets of hand-held ArcPads and digital cameras are being used to gather the information.

The project started last year and equipment was acquired over the summer on a shoestring budget of about $5,000, he said. The town paid for the custom PDA software and cameras using money it made from selling satellite imagery to the fire department.

Avis said he hopes to have most schools, churches, and large gathering places catalogued before summer. The VIPs began training in November, hoping to start the fieldwork by the end of December. However, the schools were closed then, so they're just now beginning.

Avis said getting the data into the fire vehicles would take some work, but police will immediately have access to information as soon as it's processed. A "phase two" of the project may include adding the building plans into the system.

Sgt. Bill Derfus, who coordinates the Volunteer Patrol for the Marana Police Department, said police will heavily use the system once it's ready.

"It's a program that's going to be phenomenal, especially for first responders," he said, adding that punching in any address on a keypad will bring up a multilayered data map of that area.

In a hostage situation, for instance, police could click on a point and be able to look at what that part of the building looks like, he said.

Derfus said the town made the system as "user friendly" as possible. The hand-held ArcPad features a drop-down menu that walks the volunteers through the process.

"We think it's worth our time and it gives the volunteers something to do, which they've been anxious to do," Avis said.

The department's VIPs program, which started last January, now has more than 100 members, Derfus said. Each volunteer must take courses at the department and receive 40 hours of training before being turned loose on the field.

And for a lot of them, the program is an eye-opener, Derfus said.

Just take Salerno's word for it.

Salerno said he experienced the other side of his local police department recently.

"When we think of the police, we see a patrol car at the next corner waiting for us to speed by and get a ticket, or being followed when we're drunk," Salerno said.

But they're also the first to respond to an emergency, or when there is a robbery, a holdup, a fight or a lost child, he said.

"There are so many things in the police department besides giving out tickets," Salerno said. "When you complete these different courses, you have a different outlook on your police department. So, when you see a police car go by, just wave and say hello."

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