The Human Touch

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With the press of a button, fast-acting emergency response systems can be set inmotion. But sophisticated technology is no substitute for a well-trained staff.

The Human Touch"Technology applications are constantly changing. New developments,including communications, information access, training,and modeling, will help you respond more effectively. Withthe new tools, you will be able to save more lives. Software innovationswill continue. You will use new technologies never beforeconsidered possible."

SO BEGINS "Trends in Technology: New Tools for theChallenges of Emergency Management," a section from anemergency management training program recently developedby John Wiley & Sons and Gatlin EducationalServices. The programmakes it clear that technological strategies will play an evermore significant role in keeping school environments safeand secure from natural threats like fires and chemicalspills, as well as human threats like vandals and intruders.

Some of these new tools and software innovations are already occupying a principal role in the way districts protect their students, their staff, and their property. Several new active-alarm products-someone senses an emergency and presses a button-have been introduced into K-12 schools. StopTech's alarm system, Centurion, has traditionally been used in courthouses but is now available for school buildings. Centurion is wireless: A teacher presses an alarm button, and the message goes out through two-way radio, pager, e-mail, or phone, depending on the school's preference. The system can be set up to alert the school resource officer, the principal's office, or the local police; the message identifies its source. Cliff Robson, coowner of StopTech, says, "We're trying to get help as soon as possible and pinpoint where the problem is." Centurion can also include detectors for motion, smoke, glass breakage, door and window contact, and temperature.

Joe Loechle, the assistant principal of Cincinnati's North College Hill Junior/Senior High School, says that Centurion "works well for us, because we have it in every classroom." The alarm button attaches on the underside of teachers' desks, and the alert goes out on the same frequency as the security staff's two-way radios. The protocol is for security to call the classroom and then go there immediately. Generally, says Loechle, two or three people show up at the door, which makes a big difference in keeping a situation from escalating.

Another wireless, active-alarm product is Guardian from Turn-Key Technologies. The company heralds it as a "personal wireless security and emergency notification system"). All school staff wear a call pendant, which they can press in case of emergency. The pendant contains software that alerts a monitoring "hub," pinpointing the source of the alert. (It also contains an optional "tilt switch" so that the hub is alerted when the pendant is horizontal for a given amount of time.) CEO Craig Badrick says the system is customizable: Company personnel consult with administrators, conduct a radio-frequency survey of the school, design and install the system to the school's specifications, and train school staff. "It's much better to be proactive than reactive," he says. The cost for a typical elementary school for a Guardian installation is about $25,000.

At Snoqualmie Valley School District #410 in the western part of the state of Washington, daytime emergencies can also be handled with the touch of an alarm button, which transmits to an operations center manned by the maker of the security system, Sonitrol Pacific, located in nearby Everett, WA. After hours, a passive sound-detection system has been monitoring the district's 10 campuses since 1998, for about $45,000 a year. Loud noises activate the system, cueing staff at the operations center to determine whether a break-in is in progress. If so, they alert local police.

Active alerts. Passive alerts. Video surveillance. It can get confusing, cumbersome-and expensive. That's why MDI Security Systems-along with legislators, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, school staff, and former members of the US Army Special Forces-created the LearnSafe Initiative. LearnSafe is intended to provide comprehensive security through educational programs and technology and security services. Executive Director Jack Walser says that the initiative is "vendor-agnostic." LearnSafe representatives talk to district staff, assess security needs, make recommendations, offer technology solutions, and even help schools acquire funding (e.g., by finding grants and using bond issues). Walser says, "There are a million ways to help schools pay for these programs, instead of sacrificing their operational budget."

But the technology-cameras, sound alarms, locks, networks, etc.-is only part of the strategy to keep schools safe, and, judging from the impression given by school security personnel, may even be secondary. Foremost are the people running the show: planning, communicating, training-and that's where some work may be needed: Last May, US Government Accountability Office testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security reported that "school districts are generally not training with first responders or community partners on how to implement their school district emergency plans".

"You can have fancy hardware and telecommunications systems and two-way radios, and on and on," says Douglas Conwell, emergency management specialist for Santa Fe Public Schools (NM). "The most important thing for people to be trained in is the basic protocol of crisis response."

Conwell himself received federal emergency-response training, and, in addition to working with schools, he's worked with police, hospitals, and the Red Cross. Conwell is a strong advocate of face-to-face coordination: He brings all emergency responders- police, fire, sheriff-to the 31 public schools in his district. He wants to be sure that staff, students, and parents understand what should happen in an emergency, so he runs them through hypothetical scenarios, and he runs schools through drills. Essentially, he wants people to know who should do what, and how. "The bottom line is communication," he says.

That's a sentiment echoed by Robert Hellmuth, director of the Department of School Safety and Security in Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, MD. "[Communication] is probably the most difficult thing," says Hellmuth. "Everyone is busy. We all talk a different language. If you're going to have a breakdown, it's going to be in communications."

Hellmuth's district encompasses 200 schools and 140,000 students; it uses alarm systems, access control systems, video surveillance, and classroom call buttons. When Hellmuth realized that the district's analog cameras were getting old and worn out and that new digital video surveillance cameras ran about $6,500 apiece, he wanted to be sure that whatever individual pieces the district bought in the future interconnected.

"Everything had been mismatched," says Hellmuth. "None of the systems talked with each other."

He brought in a consultant to design a comprehensive new system, which was installed by Netcomm. This new system added updated parts (e.g., plasma televisions at the alarm center) and, most importantly, ensured intercommunication so that one platform coordinated all the individual components.

Hellmuth has met with teachers, principals, PTA groups, county police and fire, and emergency management, and he's asked them: "What is it that would help you all and make you feel better about your children's safety?" The answers aren't always compatible. For example, access control is controversial: Some parents want lockdowns during the school day, while others call that heavy-handed.

"They're both right," says Hellmuth. "How do you find the balance? We don't want a fortress situation, but we want to secure our schools the best we can." The solution is to have the doors open until the school day begins, then to lock down the side doors, leaving only the front door for access.

Ultimately, a truism about technology tools applies to security systems as well: They are only as effective as the people operating them. Gary Jefferis, director of maintenance and operations at Everett School District #2, not-too-distant neighbor to the Snoqualmie Valley school system, also emphasizes the personal relationships: "Any system will work doing this; it's the company behind the system that's important," he says. "It's almost like getting a family doctor. You have to have that trust and faith that when the company gets those calls, it will respond."

Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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