In order to facilitate a coordinated and controlled response to an emergency incident, the first function of a school emergency alert system should always be to contact 9-1-1. If 9-1-1 is left out of the picture, the risk exists of an uncoordinated response with a potentially negative outcome.
On May 18th 2018 at around 7.30 a.m. local time, Dimitrios Pagourtzis - a 17-year-old student at the Santa Fe Junior High School in Texas - entered the school's Arts Complex and started shooting at occupants of the ceramics class - fatally wounding two teachers and eights students. On hearing shots being fired, a teacher in a neighboring classroom ran into the corridor and activated the fire alarm before instructing his students to barricade the door and hide.
The timeline of what followed is not exactly clear. Witnesses to the event claim it was between five and ten minutes before the school's two SROs arrived at the incident - alerted by the activation of the fire alarm - and up to a further fifteen minutes before law enforcement agencies arrived at the school - alerted to the shooting by a student who had called 9-1-1 while hiding in a cupboard. Pagourtzis later surrendered to police thirty minutes after starting his shooting spree.
The Outcome Could Have Been a Lot Worse
Although no drill had been planned for that Friday morning, the activation of the fire alarm prompted an evacuation of the school's other buildings. Students and teachers walked out of their classes and stood around on the school's grounds, waiting to be told they could re-enter the buildings. Word eventually filtered through there was an active shooter on campus, after which what was described as a “fog of chaos” descended on the school as students and teachers ran in all directions to seek shelter.
According to Ken Trump - President of National School Safety and Security Services, the outcome could have been a lot worse. Trump said “when you initiate evacuation by a fire drill, you are creating a target-rich environment that is perfect for shooters to cause mass fatalities.” He added that a lockdown would have been a better way to ensure safety; but, although lockdown procedures had been rehearsed at the school, teachers were not aware of the nature of the emergency due to the fire alarm's activation.
"It’s one thing to write down your plan of action for school emergencies. However, writing out plans alone does not mean your school will be ready to take action during a drill or actual incident."
How a 9-1-1 Mobile Panic Button Could Have Helped
A mobile panic button is an app that SROs, teachers, and other authorized personnel can download onto their smartphones and activate whenever an emergency incident occurs. The app's interface allows users to quickly and easily select the nature of the emergency, while the location of the emergency is either entered manually or transmitted to incident management portals via geo-tagged location tracking software - making it a more effective school emergency alert system than a fire alarm.
In the case of the Santa Fe school shooting, a mobile panic button could have eliminated the need for a teacher to run into the corridor to activate the fire alarm - exposing himself to danger and possibly his students as well. The app could have alerted school employees to the nature of the emergency so that the school's SROs would have been better prepared for the situation they were about to encounter and so that lockdown procedures could have been initiated, rather than prompting a target-rich evacuation.
Why it is Important 9-1-1 is the First to be Alerted to the Emergency
In addition to notifying school employees to the nature and location of an emergency incident, it is also important the school emergency alert system simultaneously notifies 9-1-1 of the emergency. If a mobile panic app only alerts first responders - in this case, the school's SROs - problems can occur if first responders are injured or killed; or, as happened at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooting in Florida in February, the SRO responds inappropriately.
Other possible problems that may occur when a school emergency alert system does not involve 9-1-1 from the very start of an emergency incident include a loss of coordination and control (as occurred at Santa Fe Junior High School during the “fog of chaos”), and the loss of a single channel of communication between 9-1-1 incident managers and on-scene resources - confusing situational awareness and the ability to make informed tactical decisions.
The other benefit of having 9-1-1 first in your school emergency alert system is that you prevent 9-1-1 dispatchers being flooded with calls from students and teachers (as well as concerned parents) that relate to the emergency incident but that lack new or critical information. In order for this benefit to be effective, schools should tell students, parents and teachers that 9-1-1 will automatically be alerted to an incident when an emergency occurs.
Why You Should Consider A School Emergency Alert System with Direct 9-1-1 Integration
A school emergency alert system such as an easy-to-use smartphone app should include a user-friendly interface that alerts 9-1-1 and school personnel simultaneously with two taps of the screen to active shooter events, fires, medical emergencies, and other situations in which a police presence is required. The app should also use geo-tagged location tracking software to accelerate emergency responses and support two-way communication to enhance situational awareness.
The ideal app would integrate seamlessly with other critical emergency communication platforms that provide 9-1-1 dispatchers with critical facility information such as school floor plans to better prepare emergency responders for the landscape they are about to encounter. Having access to this facility data not only accelerates emergency responses by providing details such as access points and floor plans, but also improves the likelihood of a positive outcome to an emergency.
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