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When technology works better together, people work better together, enabling faster emergency response and resolution times.

Closing the gap in school emergency response


When technology works better together, people work better together, enabling faster emergency response and resolution times

Key points:

  • One of the biggest issues surrounding school emergency plans is a reliance on disparate and disconnected technologies
  • Automated emergency response and streamlined communications are two ways to improve school emergency response plans
  • See related article: How our school handled the chaos of an active shooter hoax

As school violence has reached a 20-year high, schools and first responders are feeling more pressure to make sure they’re prepared to respond to and resolve school safety incidents as quickly and effectively as possible.

When an emergency happens at a school, every second matters during the response. But communication and visibility gaps continue to hinder school officials and first responders and their ability to respond quickly in emergencies. The ability to effectively communicate during these incidents saves lives.

Some of these gaps stem from technology-related challenges, like poor radio coverage in school buildings, a lack of real-time information about how an emergency is unfolding, and limited communication lines between schools, police and parents. But outdated plans and insufficient training can also impact communications, whether it’s different agencies not speaking a common language or frightened parents who aren’t sure of what’s happening with their children during an emergency.

Fortunately, progress is being made on closing these gaps. New and more interoperable technologies can help all parties better communicate during an emergency and improve how law enforcement monitors fast-changing developments. During these incidents, accurate situational awareness is paramount to effective and efficient incident resolution. And schools are revisiting and revising outdated plans to help make sure school personnel and parents alike are prepared for an emergency.

Closing the gaps

A top issue with school emergency operation or action plans (EOPs/EAPs) today is that they rely on disparate and disconnected technologies.

Here’s how an emergency response might play out at many schools: An emergency happens, and an administrator or teacher presses a panic button to alert local law enforcement. Then, school officials contact that same law enforcement agency over the phone or a dedicated police radio to provide key details about what’s happening. School officials also alert staff and students of the situation, and staff may need to take actions like locking all doors.

A different technology is used in each of these steps, whether it’s the panic button, phone or radio, and school intercom system. What’s more, each technology is used independent of the others. This can make EOPs and EAPs not only inefficient but also ripe for failure if a single step is compromised. What if, for example, the police radio that’s used to contact police can’t be reached during an emergency?

New technologies can help solve these challenges by helping school and law-enforcement personnel better monitor, respond to, and resolve fast-changing emergencies. But not every school will deploy the same technology package. Schools have different needs and restraints, like varying budgets and available resources.

Consider two ways that a school can modernize its emergency response to be more efficient and effective.

1. Automated emergency response

Reducing the number of steps that responding personnel need to take in an emergency can save precious time. That’s why some schools are choosing to deploy automated emergency response software.

The software connects voice, video, IoT and data communications. This allows those responding to an emergency to communicate with each other–and other responding agencies–and access everything from building maps to videos streams. And because the software can connect to technologies like a school’s access-control and intercom systems, it can automate critical response activities.

Here’s how the software can improve the scenario described earlier: A teacher detects a threat and presses a panic button on an app on their smartphone. This immediately notifies law enforcement of the emergency and automatically activates the school’s access-control system to instantly lock all doors. It also triggers the school communication system to notify all students and staff of the emergency, and all digital signage to display the message “remain in class.”

Meanwhile, within seconds of the panic button being pressed, the responding police department can start assessing the situation. For example, they can access the live feed of the school camera that’s closest to where the emergency was reported, or switch to other school camera feeds to further assess the situation.

As officers start arriving on scene, the commanding officer can share a satellite map with them and mark it up in real time to show them where to position or enter. That officer can also use the software to call officers from any responding agency on their radios–no matter what band or brand of radio those officers are using.

All of this is made possible by an alliance of companies that have banded together to provide end-to-end, open standards-based technologies. Their applications, hardware, and services have all been tested and validated for interoperability and compatibility.

2. Streamlined communications

Not every school has the resources to deploy a fully automated emergency response system. But there are other actions that schools can take to keep communication lines open so law enforcement can swiftly and confidently respond to school emergencies.

Too often when an emergency happens, responding officers can’t communicate with school officials–or sometimes with other responding agencies–because their radios can’t talk to each other. This can create confusion and uncertainty among officers on the scene about what’s happening and cost precious time.

A radio gateway device can solve this problem by connecting disparate radio platforms so they can communicate with each other. The gateway device can support the integration of fixed station or mobile radio transceivers regardless of their operating frequencies or protocols. And it can use an assortment of configuration parameters to adapt to a wide range of radio systems.

Bringing it all together

Any technology changes require schools to update their EOPs or EAPs. But as a best practice, schools should take a fresh look at their plans every year, and they should do a formal review of the plans every three to five years. Too often, after-action reports for school incidents identify communication issues that could have been uncovered and addressed through such reviews.

One activity that schools are working to address in their EOPs and EAPs today is the reunification process. It’s critical during and after an emergency that parents know where they can expect to meet their students when it’s safe enough to do so.

EOPs and EAPs should include detailed guidance for where and how school staff should reunite students with parents after an emergency. But these plans should also outline how school administrators can communicate this process to parents.

Still, plans are only as good as the people who use them. That’s why training is important.

Some schools do emergency response training with law enforcement every three years. But experts in emergency preparedness recommend annual training, ideally with a “crawl, walk, run” approach. This begins with tabletop exercises to review how school personnel would respond in an emergency and reveal any gaps in resources, communications or understanding of EOP/EAP processes. Next, school personnel must do functional exercises to help overcome the gaps identified. Finally, full-scale training of a real-world emergency provides validation that personnel will follow the protocols in their plans. This training must occur at least annually. 

Support is available

Put simply, when it comes to keeping kids and teachers safe, schools don’t have to go it alone – industry is all-in on the mission, too.

For example, the aforementioned alliance of companies that’s bridging technologies to enable instant communications during an emergency can also help schools and law enforcement navigate the many challenges of emergency preparedness.

The alliance can help school districts identify funding sources, like school-safety grants, and provide grant writing support for qualified applicants. It can also provide training to help make sure school officials understand and properly use technologies as part of their emergency response. And it can help school districts update their EOPs and EAPs.

Protecting what matters most

Nothing is more important to a community than the safety of its children. With a well-vetted plan and interoperable technology in place, school personnel and first responders can work together more seamlessly than ever to address school emergencies with the urgency that they deserve.

Related:
3 ways schools play a vital role in community safety
Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best: School leadership for emergencies

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