School Safety

How strong is your circle?

04/01/2012  |  Wayne Hartill
Student Safety

The Virginia Tech massacre, Columbine High School shooting, and Red Lake Senior High School massacre all remind us of the potential for violence and mass casualties in schools. These heartbreaking calamities snuffed innocent lives and marred surviving students, teachers and the community for life. The one common thread in those tragedies was the inability to warn students and teachers in order to guide them away from the danger. In the case of Columbine, conflicting witness reports as to the roaming gunmen locations on campus further hampered police.

The Systems

Schools today have many safety systems to protect students, staff and assets. Fire alarms, security alarms, access control systems, telephone systems, video surveillance, and paging/intercom/call/bell systems make up the advance technology found in school buildings today. Some of these systems are considered life safety and some are not.

Life safety systems should help to save lives in fire, medical, or other emergencies. However, many schools fail to integrate them into a cohesive safety solution. This failure limits their ability to respond to emergencies.

Life Safety Systems Integration

Integration of life safety systems empowers schools to respond effectively in emergencies.

In an emergency, access control systems can lock out and slow down perpetrators. The more obstacles thrown in the way of a perpetrator the more time police have to respond. Magnetic locks can be easily overridden by simply activating the fire alarm as the doors automatically unlock so as not to trap students in a real fire. Alternatively, electronic door strike locks utilize crash bars and do not inhibit evacuation but remain locked from the outside even when the fire alarm is activated.

School telephone systems provide a valuable tool in contacting emergency services and communicating to internal locations. However, two problems often occur with use of traditional phone systems in an unexpected emergency situation: perpetrators generally will disable local telephones first to slow down any attempted call for help, and teachers and students will tie up outside lines or swamp office staff with calls en masse potentially blocking critical calls.

Video surveillance systems are extensively used today in schools. Unfortunately they tend to be relegated to exterior doors and hallways. Most video systems end up being used for review after the fact for evidence rather than as a tool in early warning. Most teachers do not want video cameras in classrooms, and most schools cannot afford the cost of such a large number of cameras.

Some districts have worked with teachers to put low-cost cameras in all classrooms and to keep these cameras dormant unless activated by the teachers themselves or the police. The teachers retain their privacy and gain peace of mind that in an emergency, first responders can see the status of their classroom. These teacher-activated cameras also help quickly resolve false student claims against teachers.

Traditionally, paging/intercom systems rang bells for class changes, paged students and broadcast announcements. Today, modern safety communications systems ensure emergency messaging and monitoring, plus serve to integrate all safety systems together. Call switches in classrooms provide redundant means of calling for help when the telephone is disabled. Virtual call switches provide covert means of calling for help in hostage situations. Wireless personal emergency call/locator pendants give teachers additional means of calling for help in and out of the classroom. Pre-recorded messages may be used instead of traditional bell tones to clearly inform staff and students of what to do in an emergency. This is especially important when substitute teachers who lack the training in the school’s emergency procedures are present.

Integration of the telephone system with the safety communication system allows police to remotely access the paging system. Remote access allows them to quickly direct evacuation of unaffected areas while monitoring affected areas of each building. Police can also listen and watch the classrooms covertly giving them the ears and eyes they need in a hostage situation. Police can activate dormant classroom cameras to help guide their officers to the correct location of an emergency rather than depending on panicked witnesses.

Access control systems can be told to lock or unlock automatically through integration. Pre-recorded warning messages and local cameras can be activated and directed based on an attempt to break in through a door.

Fire alarm systems today are also integrated to the safety communications systems. When the fire alarm bells/buzzers sound, the safety communications system can broadcast pre-recorded announcements through the overhead speakers to clearly direct building occupants. Today there is a risk of a perpetrator triggering the fire alarm to cause an evacuation in order to bring targets out into the open. In this case a reverse evacuation can be initiated triggering a pre-defined sequence of events that defeat the fire alarm and broadcast instructions to staff/students.

For area wide emergencies, district administration can send special instructions through modern safety communication systems to multiple remote campuses simultaneously and accurately. This function is called District-Wide Paging. In certain emergency situations, police will instruct a school district to lock down a group of schools. In the past, district administration would have to call each one individually. With a district-wide communication system they can initiate an automated lockdown procedure simultaneously at all of the affected schools.

Prepare and Practice

Correct behavior in an emergency situation can prevent deaths, injuries and lifelong trauma. Fire drills are the oldest and most common procedure implemented and practiced by schools today. Now lockdown, reverse evacuation, directed evacuation (directing persons away from dangerous locations), silent evacuation (in the case of a hostage situation), and medical emergencies are also important procedures for staff to know and practice.

Plans must be reviewed regularly and updated for new threats and conditions. After any incident, behavior should be reviewed and procedures improved. Involve the community — including fire and police departments in the planning. Make provisions for police to access the life safety systems remotely to help facilitate any actions they are required to take. Giving the police access to an integrated life safety system gives them the eyes and ears they need to better respond as emergencies unfolded.

The Safety Circle

Every building and campus needs well-planned emergency procedures and life safety systems. Modern safety communication systems can integrate disparate life safety systems into a circle of safety from fires, intrusions, violence, natural calamities, and other dangers. These systems can automate emergency procedures and decrease risk.

Wayne Hartill is the Vice President of CareHawk Safety Communications, Inc. and has been involved in the development and installation of life safety systems and the education of users for 24 years in both the United States and Canada.For more information visit
Comments & Ratings

  4/26/2012 2:10:48 PM

Great Article 
More Schools should think in these terms