For school shootings, first response should be ECS

 - 
Wednesday, January 16, 2013

YARMOUTH, Maine—The nation’s schools need to be armed—with emergency communication systems.

That’s the message from fire alarm dealers interviewed by Security Systems News after a gunman massacred 20 students and six staff at a Connecticut elementary school late in 2012.

And to best protect students and staff, the dealers told SSN, schools also need to have an action plan that addresses such important questions as: Who are the true first responders in school emergencies?

“When we look at the first responders in our schools, unfortunately in a case like this it’s never the EMTs, it’s never the police department. It’s the 27-year-old teacher between the gunman and the students. It’s the principal in the office,” said Carter Rierson, president of Best Defense Security & Fire Protection, a Silent Knight-Farenhyt dealer based in Waunakee, Wis. “And they have very little training, if any, in how to respond to a situation like this, and they have zero tools.”

Colleges and universities typically have some sort of emergency communication system, also referred to as a mass notification system. But ECS is less common at elementary, middle and high schools, despite the fact that it can serve a vital role in emergency situations, the dealers said.

“ECS goes a long way,” Rierson said. “It’s not the only solution, but it is a very good tool to alert everybody. You push one button on that system and all of a sudden you’re playing a ‘shooter on campus’ message and automating the process of either locking or unlocking doors.”

The military developed mass notification systems after a 1996 terrorist bombing at a multi-story building in Saudi Arabia where American military personnel were housed. The only way to alert building occupants was the fire alarm, but lives were lost because evacuating in response to the fire alarm meant walking into the area where the bomb exploded.

The Department of Defense concluded an alert system was needed that could send a variety of messages in different kinds of emergencies, not just fires. The 2010 edition of the NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code took the important step of defining ECS and granting such systems the highest notification priority in a building.

However, many K-12 school districts still don’t know about ECS and what the technology can do, according to Rierson and others.

“The traditional reaction to this type of incident [the shooting at the Newtown, Conn., school] is to install some traditional security,” Rierson said. “But quite honestly, what good is a card reader going to do if an armed person can just simply follow somebody in? Or if they break the glass [of a window] and jump in, what is the one camera at the front door going to do? Certainly they’re good first steps, but they’re not an effective solution to prevent a situation like this.”

An ECS system also won’t necessarily prevent such an attack either, but it can minimize loss of life and speed the process of getting police and other outside responders to the scene, Rierson and others said.

“An effective ECS system should have a manner in which from multiple locations, whether it be office panic buttons or whether it be different stations throughout the building, the system can automatically be activated to go into a ‘shooter on campus’ mode,” Rierson said. “That automates the police dispatch, that automates the message going out to the classrooms and the occupants of the building, that automates the process of instigating a lockdown of certain areas, or potentially unlocking doors to make it easier for people responding to get in.”

Scott Lord, vice president of All Systems, a Kansas City, Kan.-based provider of fire alarm, mass notification and security solutions to schools and other verticals, said, “An emergency communication system can help in various aspects.”

However, he noted, “NFPA actually sets up and shows in their documentation that you plan an emergency communication system per the emergency response plan of the facility. So we need to have an emergency response plan before we can actually look at how we’re going to implement a communications system for it to work well.”

When All Systems, which uses EST (Edward Systems Technology) fire alarm/mass notification systems, works with schools to design an ECS, it looks at such questions as which emergencies are priorities, Lord said.

“One of the things we talk a lot about in schools is all the kids know what to do when a fire alarm goes off,” he said. “We do that drill all the time. That’s rote. However, fire is probably the lowest threat in a school today.” Lord said the last known death of a child in a school building fire was decades ago.

“So let’s recognize that we are drilling for something that is not our priority threat now,” he continued. “Recognizing what those threats are and how we’re going to respond to them really needs to be in an action plan before you start talking about how you’re going to put technology in place.”

J.R. Sykes, VP of contract sales at Life Safety Designs, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based provider of fire, security and mass notification services to a wide variety of verticals, including educational institutions, told SSN that events such as the tragedy in Newtown give rise to the question of “how to handle those types of situations going forward.”

However, he said, natural disasters, such as hurricanes, should also be planned for because they can be “even more devastating in their totality, if not their unpredictability.”

Sykes said in an email interview that, “MNS can be accomplished in different ways, from voice evac as part of a fire alarm installation to an ‘all call’ over an IP phone system. Mass notification, from a code-driven standpoint, is a completely different application with complexity, integration and delivery challenges that aren’t commonly understood. A layered approach—where there are multiple delivery options for administrators, first responders and those affected by the event—starts with a comprehensive design based on the specific needs of the end user.”

Life Safety Designs, which uses Cooper Notification products for mass notification, conducted a survey last fall of its customers and some AHJs about their mass notification needs.

“The responses indicated a strong desire and need for personal alerting where the flow of information could be monitored and managed to maintain a continuity in the face of dynamic situations,” Sykes said. “Also high on the list of priorities was addressing the outdoor notification needs of campus environments.”

Jerry Hanson, VP of operations for Standard Electronics, a Gamewell-FCI engineered systems distributor based in Santee, Calif., whose verticals include the K-12 market, said that schools in the West, which tend to be large single-story buildings with multiple entrance points, need ECS. However, he believes lack of funding is a major reason why more school districts aren’t updating their fire alarm systems to add emergency communication.

Hanson said that when “school districts have a functioning system, and it’s up to the current code, as long as it’s working and it’s not outdated they’re not going to go back and make any significant changes because of funds.”

The dealers said the industry should be more proactive to make schools aware of ECS/MNS and the technology’s capabilities.

Hanson, for example, said his company will be actively working with school committees to let them know about the protection the technology can afford schools. “Mass notification, it’s out there, it’s been out there,” Hanson said. “The question is how many people have to die, how many incidents like this have to occur … before there’s money being budgeted or allocated to do something about it.”