Girl with blank cell phone, headphones and a book,

Ensuring a safe learning environment is an incredibly important part of the job for every secondary school principal. The huge spectrum of emergencies for which schools must prepare ranges from allergic reactions to active shooters. Today, more than ever, technology is playing an indispensable role by enabling employees and first responders to more quickly and effectively recognize and manage these emergencies. Many schools are replacing or augmenting the panic buttons of yesterday-often affixed to walls or worn on necklaces-with sophisticated smartphone apps that enhance communication and information flow with responders.

Just a brief look at the number and type of active shooter incidents demonstrates why there is a burgeoning interest in state-of-the-art panic buttons. In a 2014 study, A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified 160 active shooter incidents, with the trend increasing during that time period. According to a 2012 New York Police Department (NYPD) study, only 16 percent of the 230 active shooter incidents they reviewed ended without applied force-either by police, security, or bystanders. What that means is that until someone-a law enforcement officer or anyone else-confronts or challenges the shooter, the attack will likely continue. By reducing the notification time of both people on the scene and responding police officers, the attacker has a smaller window to inflict injury or fatally shoot someone. 

System Updates via Smartphones and Social Media

Technology has clearly changed panic buttons. Early versions mobilized much like fire alarms-users pressed a button affixed to a wall, and an alarm sounded either in an administrator’s office, a monitoring center, or in a 911 call center. The first major improvement designed to overcome the immovable structure of the buttons was the emergence of pendant-based devices. Usually operating off low-power radios deployed in the building, users pressed a button they wore around their necks and an alarm sounded in the designated office. 

Over time, safety experts noted a flaw in having “middle men” in the emergency notification process. Whether third-party monitoring centers were adding a redundant step in the response process, or school officials were expected to triage and report emergencies that they may or may not be actively involved in, precious time was lost and unnecessary confusion became part of the mix. In addition, even though many of these processes were designed to deal with the most horrific of circumstances-active shooters-the reality is that those incidents made up a very small percentage of the daily emergencies at schools. Bottom line: Systems sat unused and untested, delivering little or no value, yet, in the most harrowing of scenarios, users were expected to remember how they operated.

The latest wave of panic button technologies takes advantage of core capabilities of ubiquitous smartphones, including location-based services, texting, and multimedia and voice services. These apps have the ability to create a communication bridge between the victim or initial reporter of the incident, responders, and on-site personnel such as school resource officers and administrators. Some of these technologies even leverage the existing 911 center response processes and dispatch capabilities to speed response time. While addressing the entire spectrum of emergencies, these solutions also address the key recommendations of every major study of active shooter incidents-they shorten the time for engagement in the appropriate mitigation behavior and increase communication. 

Because the latest wave of technology solutions is not confined to a single school but instead truly impacts organizations across the entire response process, they are often driven at a district-, county-, or even statewide level. 

Disseminating Critical Information Quickly

For example, the state of Arkansas recently chose to deploy the Rave Panic Button from Rave Mobile Safety. Each of the nearly 1,100 public schools in the state is working closely with its local 911 centers and public safety agencies to implement streamlined response and communication processes for all types of incidents-from medical emergencies to fires and active shooters. The response agencies are provided with critical information to help in the response, such as school floor plans and emergency operations plans, and thus they’re able to rapidly disseminate information to all of the on-site personnel. At the push of a button, everyone who needs to be alerted to a situation is notified, and the person reporting the incident is instantly connected to 911. (This new technology is used in conjunction with the fixed panic buttons.)

Many school districts in Snohomish County, WA, took a similar approach, implementing a mobile panic button app that ties into the 911 system and also notifies designated officials. Everett Schools’ Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Molly Ringo in Everett, WA, noted, “This project brought together school personnel, law enforcement, and 911 centers to collaborate on an effective emergency response system and approach across multiple organizations.” 

Depending upon the incident type, the entire staff may be notified, or the system can alert only the medically trained responders. 

Panic buttons also provide 911 centers with a method to easily notify school administrators about off-campus incidents that may affect them, such as gas leaks or assaults. In fact, the first use of the system in a Snohomish County district involved a medical incident. In this case, the school nurse was notified immediately and was able to address the incident before emergency medical services arrived. 

“[This solution] provides a critical link between the communications center, school resource officers, school administrators, and responders,” says Tom O’Loughlin, police chief of Milford, MA. “It will save time in a response, give better situational awareness-and with the immediate availability of detailed caller location, floor plans, exit details, and more-it will enable more precise and effective on-site action.

“While every school and district has its own unique requirements, today’s technology provides opportunities to significantly increase safety across the spectrum of incidents experienced on a daily basis. Although everyone hopes that worst-case scenarios like a critical medical emergency or an active shooter will never arise, given today’s unpredictable environments these solutions should be considered as part of a holistic plan to ensure the safety of students and faculty. 

Todd Piett is chief product officer at Rave Mobile Safety.