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Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

This Is An Emergency: Listen Up

School Emergency Communications Systems 

PHOTO © FILIPE MATOS FRAZAO/SHUTTERSTOCK

Suppose a man with a gun attacks your school. You have only seconds to communicate with teachers, staff and students. How are you going to tell them what they need to know? What is it that they need to know? What is the communication? Is it clear? Are you sure that students, faculty and staff — all of them — will understand what you are telling them to do?

“One of the most important factors in security is communications,” says Randy Braverman, director of campus safety at Oak Park and River Forest High School, located adjacent to the west side of Chicago. “You must think outside of the box about communication.”

Braverman serves on the Illinois Antiterrorism Task Force school and campus training program. He has taught security courses for K-12 schools and colleges for seven years. A former police officer, he has also worked as a security consultant with educational institutions at all levels.

Braverman goes on to say that you have to think about and plan messages that can be sent immediately to anyone that might be in danger as well as the first responders that will help. You don’t have time to think about it. It must be ready to go, preferably at the push of a button.

In short, you need mass notification systems that are always ready to use. A mass notification system can send an emergency message to a lot of people all at once. Keep in mind, however, one mass notification system probably won’t reach everybody you need to reach. So you need more than one.

The public address system, of course, is a key mass notification tool. But what about parents? They won’t hear the public address system. Neither will everyone on the school grounds. The PA system probably doesn’t work well in a couple of rooms in the school. The music in the band room will drown out announcements. Are there speakers outside to communicate with gym classes? Then there are the first responders.

Every school needs systems that can communicate with all of these groups in an emergency. Every school also needs procedures that have been practiced and drilled so that the right communications go out fast enough to everyone that needs the information — and so that those receiving the information know what to do and how to do it.

“Mass notification and emergency communication systems can include public address systems, color coded lights, two-way radios, electronic sign boards, social media and school websites,” notes Paul Timm, president, RETA Security, Inc., a security consulting firm in Lemont, Ill., specializing in K-12 schools and colleges.

Just press a button

“We have installed automated communication systems in the security office, the administrative offices and the front door screening desk,” says Braverman. “You can press a button to trigger an automatic public address announcement and a call to the police or fire department. You can trigger announcements that call for a hard lockdown, soft lockdown, shelter in place and evacuation.”

The announcements are in plain English. Braverman doesn’t like coded language. “We don’t use phrases like ‘code red’,” he says. “We want everyone to understand the kind of emergency we’re facing.”

What if an active shooter hears the announcement? “We don’t care what the bad guy knows,” Braverman adds. “He knows we’re going to lock down. He knows kids are in the building. We make plain English announcements and train students, faculty and staff to respond.”

Security procedures call for a hard lockdown when the threat involves possible violence and bodily harm. For a hard lockdown, teachers and staff move everyone out of the halls into secure rooms with a locked door. Everyone avoids doors and windows. The window shades are closed. Color-coded status cards are placed in the windows. Red indicates a need for medical help. Green means everyone is okay.

During a hard lockdown, everyone waits quietly as the police move through the school and secure each room — Braverman has placed keys in locked boxes accessible to the police and firefighters outside of the school. The boxes have combination locks, and the police or fire dispatcher provides the responders with the location of the boxes and the combinations for the locks. Of course, this communication was set up ahead of time.

A soft lockdown comes in the event of a danger outside, in the community. It might mean, for instance, that a business has been robbed and the robber in in the area. The trouble might be inside the school — perhaps a fight has broken out in the cafeteria, so it is necessary to keep students from going to the cafeteria. “In a soft lockdown, we bring everyone outside back into the school,” Braverman says. “Classes continue as usual — our policy is that teachers lock classroom doors while they teach. Everyone stays inside — or away from the cafeteria — until the problem is solved.”

The signal to shelter in place warns of severe weather, toxic air or some other crisis outside. “We have locations inside where students go,” Braverman says. “In the Midwest, we have tornadoes, and we gather in areas on the first floor with sturdy supporting walls.”

A fire or other indoor emergency would, of course, call for an evacuation.

Communicating with light

Braverman’s communication procedures also take into account students faculty and staff who cannot hear public address announcements — those in the gym or band room as well as those who may be off campus at lunch or on a field trip.

“We’re installing sets of three lights in rooms and areas of the school where the public address system can’t be heard,” he says. “A red light calls for a hard lockdown; a white light calls for evacuation; and a yellow light means shelter in place.”

Braverman is also installing sets of lights outside of the building to communicate with students, faculty and staff outside of the building. If there is a hard lockdown or evacuation underway, the lights will tell anyone returning to the school to stay away. If there is a need to shelter in place, they will know to hustle inside.

“Another way to warn those who are off campus not to return is to require them to leave cell phone numbers before they go and contact them with a system that sends out email, text messages and voice mail blasts,” says RETA’s Paul Timm. “These kinds of systems can also be used to contact parents and let them know what is happening and what they should — and shouldn’t do.”

There are a number of such systems on the market. They can be web-based cloud services or housed within the district and maintained by the IT group.

Braverman notes that it is important to provide an off-campus backup for these kinds of systems. “If a power failure or other problem takes your system off line, a backup will make it possible to communicate with people signed into these systems,” he says.

In addition, he continues, phone numbers and email addresses for nearby schools should be entered into these systems. If your school goes into lockdown, the principals of nearby schools probably need to activate their emergency plans as well.

Other emergency communication tools

Other emergency communication tools include two-way radios, electronic signboards, social media and the front pages of the school and school district websites.

“I think all administrative and facilities personnel as well as staff that monitor student movement should carry two-way radios,” says Timm. “Today’s radios can send short text messages, call one person or a group. They can also do call forwarding. Schools without exterior PA systems really have to commit to two way radios and two-step messaging — over the PA system inside and over the radio to personnel outside.”

Working with the police and fire departments, Braverman has set up his two-way radios with a frequency band that can talk directly to fire and police. “Now we can tell them directly what is wrong, without going through the 911 center,” he says.

Some schools are investing in networked electronic messaging boards that can flash alerts and instructions at different places inside and outside of the building.

Braverman recently decided to produce a parent training video that parents can access on the school’s web site. “If parents happen to be in the school during an emergency, they should know what to do if we call for a hard or soft lockdown or evacuation,” he says. “The video will go over these procedures.

“In addition, if there is an evacuation, students will go to a designated site where their parents can pick them up. We will use the video to communicate this location and the procedure for picking up students.”

Social media — especially Twitter — and the front pages of school and school district websites offer mass notification capabilities as well.

Be sure to discuss all communication outlets with your various audiences.

Then review your communications protocols. Think about what else would be useful? Braverman, for instance, decided to print maps of the school for firefighters and police officers. The maps identify entrances, corridors, classrooms, administrative areas and large spaces such as the gym, cafeteria and auditorium.

Perhaps most importantly, the maps call out utility rooms and shut-offs for gas, electricity and water. “This is an important part of emergency communications, too.”

Communicating through drills

Drills designed to practice various elements of school emergency response plans help to communicate plans, policies and procedures to students, teachers, administrators and staff.

Many states have begun requiring schools to conduct and document drills. In Illinois, for instance, state law requires three evacuation drills every year. “We do one with the local fire department, one with the police and one bus-evacuation and shelter in place drill,” Braverman says. “We also have to meet with fire and police officials once a year. Many schools also practice lockdowns.”

While students have practiced evacuating in fire drills for years, a relatively new part of the procedure involves area refuges. “When we have an evacuation, anyone with a physical disability — those on crutches or in wheelchairs, for instance — go to area refuges,” explains Braverman. The firefighters go to the area refuges first to get them out.

“We have four floors and two area refuges on each floor. The fire department picked the rooms out. Generally they are near elevators and stairwells.”

Surviving a fire, tornado or armed attack requires planning first and then communicating the plan effectively to everyone through drills that announce the emergency and direct the school community to evacuate, shelter in place or lock down.

The emergency response itself involves communications with PA systems, lights, electronic message boards, two-way radio, websites, social media and mass notification texts, phone calls and email.

All of these tools enable fast, direct communications with the large number of students, faculty, administrators, staff and school visitors that will be in harm’s way during an emergency. High quality communications can save lives.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

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