Leading Practices and Key Criteria for Evaluating Emergency Communication Solutions

Campus security solutions must protect against extreme threats such as active shooters as well as everyday incidents of injuries, fights, severe weather, and health emergencies.


Campus security solutions must protect against extreme threats such as active shooters as well as everyday incidents of injuries, fights, severe weather, and health emergencies. All such incidents demand fast, reliable responses with complete and accurate information. As technology innovates so do the options schools have to best protect students and staff. How do school systems evaluate and choose the most effective emergency notification solutions?


Mobile Security Apps

Mobile devices and apps have expanded everyone’s ability to connect, share information, and get things done. This applies to school security and communications, with increased adoption of mobile app solutions for campus alerts and communications. Many characteristics of mobile apps make sense for campus security. Most everyone on school staff has an app-ready smartphone or device. In theory, that means staff with devices in hand can open apps to send a panic signal or communicate during an emergency incident. But the practical use of apps and devices in such situations creates challenges.

Mobile app systems require teachers and staff to have their devices ready and charged. They also must be able to launch and use the alert and communications functions when an incident occurs. This highlights potential obstacles:

  • Device Access: People do not always keep their mobile phones or device with them. A teacher might keep a phone in a desk drawer, purse, or briefcase. (Often school policies require that teachers put away mobile devices in classrooms.) If a student in the classroom has a medical emergency such as a seizure, a teacher responding might not be able to get across the classroom to reach the phone—or even know where the phone is located.
  • App Access: Even with a phone or device in hand, a teacher or staff member must be able to log onto it and open the emergency app. This could require a panicked teacher to make a fingerprint or PIN authentication and then operate app functions during a threatening incident. Compromised motor skills and shaky hands during a fight-or-flight response could cost critical response time.
  • Connection Access: Emergency events can happen anywhere inside or outside on campus. Hallways, stairwells, internal offices, locker rooms, practice fields, and parking lots might not always have reliable WIFI or cellular coverage.
  • Location Notification: A phone’s GPS cannot precisely identify the room and floor where an incident is happening. Responding to room 102 instead of room 302 can have catastrophic consequences in a medical emergency.

Apps can provide valuable functions and capabilities. Schools adopting app-based solutions should consider where they fit in their overall response approach and whether apps can serve as a reliable first point of alert in an emergency incident.

Fixed Wall Mount Panic Buttons

Safety and security incidents in schools unfold in ways that expose vulnerabilities in existing response solutions. For example, some systems use fixed wall-mounted panic buttons in school rooms, a potential point for failure if a staff member is not within reach.

There are emergency situations that could take place away from a wall-mounted panic button:

  • A coach on the field attending to an injured player
  • A staff member who sees a fight in the cafeteria or a student with a weapon in the parking lot
  • A teacher confronted and threatened in a classroom at his or her desk, unable to reach a mounted panic button just be several feet away

Alarm triggers must be accessible immediately when a safety or security incident occurs. Just like with mobile apps, wall-mounted units only work if circumstances align perfectly, which is often not the case in a crisis moment.

Keeping Students Safe in the Classroom

Two-Way Radio Systems

Two-way radios or walkie-talkies can provide fast connections for people in many useful ways. The technologies have evolved with different methods and protocols for on-demand communications between pairs or among groups.

But in a school crisis, they present limitations that can delay or prevent a critical response.

The devices themselves can be bulky and impractical for every teacher and staff member to carry and have readily accessible in an emergency. Radios do not provide critical location information.

All the systems and responder organizations might not be connected to effectively communicate across needed channels and jurisdictions. Even the push-to-talk function of hand-held radios can be tough to use in the chorus of voices during an emergency, particularly with half-duplex systems that only allow one speaker.

One voice close to the tragic 2018 Parkland school shooting vividly noted the limitation of two-way radios in a school emergency. Lori Alhadeff, the mother of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, said that “radios were like bricks, they weren’t working,” describing the frustrating inability to communicate and coordinate as the shooting unfolded.

Two-way radios can serve as a valuable tool for quick verbal communications in general use or in emergency protocols, especially for schools that have already invested in the equipment. They work effectively as a complement to a more comprehensive school emergency notification and communications solution


Five Characteristics of an Effective School Notification and Communication Solution

Knowing the gaps in traditional systems helps define the characteristics of an optimal school emergency response system. Systems that will best secure the safety and wellbeing of students and staff should meet the following five criteria:

school safety

Address All Types of Emergencies, Daily Incidents, and Crises

School leaders and communities tend to think first about how best to prevent and respond to tragic school shootings, but school shootings remain statistically rare. Only 0.00008 percent of the K-12 schools have had a mass shooting incident in the past 30 years.

But schools do face a variety of health and safety incidents every day. Accidental injuries, fights, weather incidents, and fires are more common events that require unique, rapid responses to keep students and staff safe and sometimes save lives.

Schools reported 1.4 million crimes in 2015-2016 (the most recent year of data), with 79 percent of schools recording at least one crime incident. This included 449,000 crimes reported to the police.

In that same year, 10 percent of teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student. And in 2017, 4 percent of students ages 12-18 reported that they had feared attack or harm at school during the year. [All crime stats from National Center for Education Statistics here.

Injury incidents also occur frequently. According to the CDC, more than 200,000 students under the age of 14 are treated in the hospital for playground injuries each year. High school athletes alone account for an estimated 2 million injuries as well as 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year. And according to the National Institute of Health, 68 percent of school nurses manage life-threatening emergencies.

A complete, effective emergency notification solution must address all of these school safety incidents, as well as provide the greatest protection and response in a worst-case active shooter situation. Some scenarios for administrators to consider:

  • Would this emergency notification solution let staff quickly respond to a student medical emergency or a fight on the playground?
  • Would it enable the front-desk personnel to request help without escalating a situation with an irate non-guardian demanding to see their child?
  • Would it enable swift response if a domestic dispute erupts in the parking lot during a student pickup?

Schools also can gather real crisis scenario examples from teachers and staff to ensure that their emergency notification solutions will address all incidents they will likely face. Given limited funding, this helps schools to prioritize their investments to cover and respond to more of the most likely incidents.

Make It Available to Everyone, Everywhere

An emergency notification system can only save lives if it is available. Staff must be able to request help or initiate a lockdown from anywhere on campus, whether it’s the classroom, the playground, the parking lot, or the stadium. As the Center for Homeland Defense and Security has reported, nearly half of school shooting incidents occurred outside the school building. Accidents, injuries, fights, and other response events occur in all corners of the school grounds.

This best practice of “anyone, anytime, anywhere” was cited in 2013 after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and repeated in the MSDHS Safety Commission’s report following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. To maximize accessibility and coverage, every teacher and staff member should wear a mobile panic button (such as a badge) at all times and be able to trigger a response or a lockdown without depending on WIFI or cellular connection.


Be Simple and Fast to Use

Every second saved in an emergency—whether in requesting help or providing critical information to responders—improves the chances for a positive outcome. An analysis of 41 school shootings between 2008 and 2017 by the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center found that two-thirds of attacks lasted less than 2 minutes. Nearly half were over in less than 60 seconds.

Time is also critical when responding to an altercation, injury, or medical incident. For example, the American Heart Association cites research showing that survival rates for cardiac arrest patients fall 7 percent to 10 percent for every untreated minute.

An alert system should require very few steps for any staff member to request help. One-touch activation by clicking a single button on a body-worn device is simpler and faster than retrieving a phone from a drawer or pocket, turning it on, authenticating, and launching an app—especially under duress. Those seconds are precious when a safety incident or threat unfolds.


Quickly Communicate Precise Information

Technology can automate the rapid sharing of information critical to responders and everyone affected. For a teacher in the panic of an emergency, relaying even basic information such as name and location verbally can be difficult. Alert devices and apps should be assigned to specific users, identifying them automatically when they request help.

Notification solutions should also be able to pinpoint and communicate the exact location during an emergency. This is an area where technology innovation significantly advances the capabilities of school alert and notification solutions. As noted elsewhere in this paper, GPS solutions are not able to identify locations to the exact room. Advanced private security networks can communicate the exact floor and room information without reliance on WiFi or cellular coverage, directing responders to react quickly and precisely.


Communicate Clearly to the Entire School Community

Schools have many ways to show and broadcast critical information to everyone who needs it during an emergency. Solutions should reach the eyes and ears of the most people possible, quickly and reliably.

Intercom announcements often inform and direct people during these types of events. Automated, pre-recorded announcements specific to each type of incident ensure a clear, complete, and concise message. They also eliminate potential confusion or delays of a manual message, particularly if administrators are not able to get to the intercom.

Interior and exterior strobe lights can alert people on playgrounds, in restrooms, or arriving to campus that an incident is under way. Instructional messages displayed on computers and phones can also be extremely beneficial to those on campus not well versed in protocols (substitute teachers, volunteers, visitors) who require more complete information.

Administrators often receive incident information from local authorities when they are away from the campus, so they must be able to initiate communications and proper responses to incidents remotely. Systems also should link directly to local police, paramedics, EMTs, and other certified first responders. The key is maximizing awareness and information to all those affected.


Conclusion and Recommendations

School emergency alert systems can get crucial help to the scene quickly, no matter the nature of the safety event. We recommend that school systems:

  • Assess and prioritize the most likely risks and threats in your schools.
  • Create a blueprint for what an emergency alert and communications system must do to best address those threats.
  • Consider the capabilities and limitations of the many solutions available and map their capabilities to your school system’s priorities and requirements.
  • Seek a solution that is fast, ready, and available anytime, anywhere in or outside of the school building.
  • Assess tools your schools already have (such as radio systems) and how they can complement a more complete response solution.
  • Confirm that your plan and systems will inform students, administrators, parents, teachers, and emergency responders quickly in every possible way during any type of school safety situation.


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