How New Technology Increases Safety Against Gun Violence in U.S. Schools

How New Technology Increases Safety Against Gun Violence in U.S. Schools

North Carolina school first in nation to integrate active shooter detection and 911 emergency response systems for faster incident mitigation

The average school shooting lasts only 12.5 minutes, which means that every second counts when getting the closest responders to the greatest point of need.

Since the late 1960s, people throughout the United States have used 911 to make emergency phone calls. While improvements have been made over the past five decades to streamline response operations, the current procedures for gathering data and distributing it to officers often delays response times, potentially leading to loss of life.

However, new technologies are starting to assist in this endeavor. Should gunfire occur on school property, shot detection systems can now identify the shot in real time and request immediate dispatch without human intervention—thus significantly reducing the time from the first gunshot to police engagement. Earlier this year, Phoenix Academy, a charter school in High Point, N.C., was the first school system in the nation to install a gunshot detection sensor system with integrated 911 call automation. By directly contacting the High Point 911 Communication Center, the automated system empowers an immediate response and saves valuable minutes that might otherwise be lost through manual alerts and dispatches.

So, how does this integrated system work? How can it help protect students and staff during active shooter incidents on school campuses? And how are school system priorities changing to include heightened security?

School Shootings Spawn Action Against Gun Violence

In 2018, 24 school shootings resulting in injuries or deaths took place in the United States. These incidents exposed 19,965 students to gun violence, according to Education Week, which began keeping count of school shootings last year. While massshooting drills have become the new normal for schoolchildren, teachers and staff, some K-12 school systems and higher education institutions nationwide are taking safety a step further by turning to gunshot detection sensors, hoping the technology will lead to faster response times should an active shooter situation arise.

Yet, the system enacted by Phoenix Academy is the first of its kind to integrate both gunshot detection and law enforcement response technologies. Through SMS and email, it notifies designated individuals inside the school, local police and first responders of an active shooter and pinpoints the exact location of gunfire, while eliminating human delay in reporting the shot.

“It’s natural for people to wonder, ‘Was that a gunshot or a car backfiring? What am I hearing?’ And then minutes have passed before anyone calls 911,” said Christian Connors, CEO of Shooter Detection Systems. “Our integration with CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) means the moment a shot is fired, officers are dispatched while simultaneously, the school’s students, staff and visitors know where the shot has occurred and how they can get themselves to safety.”

Acoustic and Infrared Technologies Confirm Gunfire

History shows that gunshot detection systems were conceived before World War I began in 1914. Since then, technology has progressed, sensors have improved and more recently, U.S. defense contractor Raytheon has developed a system to pinpoint sniper fire and quickly alert soldiers in the field. Today, these systems are being deployed at places that include borders, cities, airports, hotels, movie theaters, stadiums and schools.

At Phoenix Academy, for instance, a gunshot prompts acoustic and infrared flashdetection sensor technologies to identify and distinguish the shot. With the shot confirmed by a proven algorithm, the interface posts the incident to the CAD open-call queue for immediate dispatch, eliminating human intervention and empowering response without delay. Additionally, it alerts emergency teams of the location and frequency of gunshots and notes the areas on campus that need immediate attention.

SDS’s sensors pinpoint the location of a shot, isolate the area and lock surrounding doors so the shooter can’t escape, and other assailants can’t enter. Additionally, other doors open to allow students and staff to exit the building safely. For instance, if a shot was fired from the school lobby, that area would go under immediate lockdown while other doors would open for safe evacuation. Lockdown situations vary, depending on how a school system customizes its gunshot detection solution.

“Every second makes a difference during an active shooter incident, and both school officials and local responders cannot afford to lose time waiting for notification and estimating the scope of the situation,” said Steve Seoane, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Public Safety, CentralSquare Technologies. “By combining our CAD technology with SDS’ Guardian detection sensors, we automate the alert and dispatch processes and get the needed personnel to the school faster and more efficiently.”

Instilling First Responder Confidence

The integrated gunshot detection-CAD system also improves the safety of responding personnel. With access to real-time, pertinent details, this integration eliminates much of the guesswork involved with arriving on the scene. For instance, in a scenario where technology has not been integrated, officers would arrive at a school after receiving secondhand information from a dispatcher. However, this new technology provides instant access to firsthand data, including location and number of gunshots, which doors are open or locked, the number of assailants, movement of the shooter(s) and a floor map of the facility—all from their field devices.

“What’s unique to this integrated system is the speed at which first responders are notified,” said Seoane. “Within seconds of SDS detecting a gunshot, both 911 and first responders are electronically notified of the incident and provided details related to the gunshot(s) without any human intervention. This technology expedites dispatch of the event by removing the current delay associated with someone at the scene calling 911 to report the incident."

Schools Increasingly Prioritizing Security

Schools are under tremendous pressure on a number of fronts—from the basics of helping students excel academically, as well as develop life and career skills, to combatting bullying, addressing the complex needs of special education students and improving mental health. Now, increased gun violence in schools has forced them to prioritize security. A recent Children’s Defense Fund report shows that more children are worried about a shooting happening in their schools than they are about fitting in or experiencing peer pressure.

In many schools, active shooter drills are the new norm for a generation of American K-12 and college students. Sadly, the “Run, Hide, Fight” mantra isn’t always enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“Since today’s new active shooter technology allows students and staff to exit areas of a school deemed safe, maybe the message should be ‘Run, Hide, Decide,’” said Connors. “If they can look at a shooter alert and say, ‘I know where I am in relation to the shot, and I can get out,’ why not let them decide whether to leave the school safely?”

Phoenix Academy, which installed and activated the system during the 2018-2019 school year, hopes never to have to make that decision. Should an incident occur, however, it will be on the cutting edge of readiness to respond faster and more effectively.

“Ensuring the safety of our students and staff is our undisputed priority, which is why we chose to expand upon our existing lockdown and evacuation procedures with more capable and responsive technology,” said Kim Norcross, superintendent of Phoenix Academy. “While we hope that we never have to use this system at its fullest capacity, we are honored to be the first school in North Carolina to bring this landmark installation to life.”

New Technology Helps Schools and Responders Face Incidents

In the year-plus since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting incident in Parkland, Fla., CNN reports a school shooting every 11.8 days. On May 1, Florida’s legislature passed a controversial school safety initiative allowing teachers to carry guns in classrooms if their district opts into the state’s Guardian Program and if they take part in and pass 144 hours of voluntary training.

There’s no doubt that the new gun safety norm in schools is changing. Increasingly, schools such as Phoenix Academy are making the investment to protect students and staff by installing new technology that integrates gunshot detection with CAD to simultaneously alert individuals inside the school and local police and responders of an active shooter. The value these systems deliver—by being able to confirm the number and location of gunshots, lock down the shooter, provide valuable information to those inside and eliminate human delay in responding— is priceless.

In time, gunshot detection systems could become as ubiquitous in schools as fire alarms.

“The more people learn about gunshot detection, the more it becomes standard technology, much like a fire alarm,” said Connors. “It’s going to reduce the fear of false alerts, and it’s going to help people inside schools decide whether they can leave the building and get to safety.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Campus Security Today.


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