Education Committee Passes School Emergency Communications Bill

DENVER, CO, March 24, 2011 –¬†¬†After two rounds of public testimony and debate, the Senate Education Committee voted unanimously Wednesday for a bill that augments the Colorado School Response Framework by creating a plan for effective communications interoperability between schools and emergency responders.

The measure is the first of its kind in the nation. A public forum about the bill will be part of a free School Safety Summit at the Colorado State Capitol on Friday, March 25, from 1-4 pm. Participants can register online at SchoolSafetySummit.org.

Senate Bill 11-173, Interoperable Communications in Schools, introduced by state senator Steve King, coordinates the expertise of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center and the Division of Fire Safety, both within the Department of Public Safety, and the Governor’s Office of Information Technology to help schools learn how to communicate directly with first responders during a school crisis.

At the first committee hearing on March 17, King shared his research on a problem that exists in school safety plans around the country. According to King, “Lack of interoperable communications has led to crisis response failure time and again. Examples include Columbine, 9/11, Katrina, and major tragic incidents around the world. Responders were unable to communicate with one another during the crisis. The main reason was that communications devices were unable to talk to one another.”

Chuck Burdick, a first responder at Columbine, testified in support of the bill. He talked about the challenges faced when communication between a school and law enforcement is not possible, as was the case at Columbine. He also noted that the bill is about more than school shootings, it is about all types of hazards that schools must address.

Three law enforcement associations supported the bill. Chris Olson represented the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, Peg Ackerman spoke for the County Sheriffs of Colorado, and Larry Borland, from Academy School District 20, testified on behalf of the Colorado Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers.

Several potential funding sources were discussed in committee, including some that have been rarely accessed specifically for school safety. Robin Pulkkinen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Ted Hughes, representing the Colorado Department of Education, came to the table to provide funding information. Pulkkinen highlighted USDA’s Community Facilities Program, and Hughes talked about the $41.5 million in financing available to Colorado through the Qualified Zone Academy Bond (QZAB) program and said additional funds might be available through the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program for the purchase of communications systems.

Alan Ford, an architect who specializes in designing K-12 and early childhood education facilities, testified in support of SB11-173. He talked about codes related to safety systems and said the codes do not speak to the interoperability issues addressed in the bill.

Greg Keasling and Ed Smith, representing Pueblo County School District 70, testified in support of the bill. Mr. Keasling said interoperability starts with a conversation, and noted that students and teachers must feel safe in order to learn and teach well. He said that schools often feel alone in crisis situations, and these conversations make them feel that they have support to keep them safe.

Keasling talked about the funds the district has leveraged to purchase communications equipment. He described how the district uses its interoperable communications systems to handle incidents large and small. Although SB11-173 does not create any new mandates for schools, Smith said from the perspective of a superintendent, a mandate that will save a student’s life is a mandate he would not mind complying with.

Clint Goldstein and Kim Coleman, representing the Governor’s Office of Information Technology, came to the table to answer questions about interoperability in Colorado today. The committee learned about a partnering template, the SAFECOM Continuum, from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Emergency Communications that drives statewide interoperability among response agencies.

Kevin Klein, head of the Division of Fire Safety, provided information about how the division works with schools on annual inspections. He clarified that the division is willing to take on the responsibilities outlined in the bill without additional resources.

George Welsh, representing Center School District, testified in support of the bill from the perspective of a rural superintendent. Kathleen Morris, representing the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services, also voiced support. Both praised the bill for helping to bring new needed resources to rural schools.

Todd Skoglund, an incident command trainer, talked about his experience training first responders. He said he regarded school personnel as first responders, and described the nature of school emergency communications during rapid response.

Jane Urschel, representing the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB), and the Education Committee requested clarifications from Senator King that would support the fiscal note showing no state or local fiscal impact. Urschel also explained that when a new law is passed, CASB puts together a policy template for districts to use in implementing it. King brought the clarifications to the second committee hearing on March 23, and these were incorporated into the language of the bill before the committee held its vote.

For more information about interoperable communications in schools visit SchoolSafetySummit.org.