Emergency Communication

School Emergency Screencast Application an “Eye Opener” for Emergency Dispatch

Location: Idaho By Becky Lewis Published Aug 2015

Every minute, every second, of every day, emergency dispatchers make decisions based on training and instinct. Unable to see what’s happening on the other end of the line, they must rely on audio cues to assign the right codes, to accurately direct emergency personnel in their response.

A new technology developed by a partnership headed by the City of Ammon, Idaho, could be the first ripple that becomes the wave changing all that.

The School Emergency Screencast Application ties together a school’s existing camera system, the city’s fiber optic network, ultra high-speed bandwidth and gunshot sensor technology to provide a live feed to emergency dispatch in the event of an active shooter incident. Winner of first prize in the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Ultra-High Speed (UHS) Application Challenge, the app garnered a $75,000 award that the city, Bonneville County and Bonneville Joint School District 93 will share, with a short-term goal of installing a fully functional system throughout test site Sand Creek Middle School and a long-term plan that just might see changes expand throughout the county’s 22 schools and beyond.

Greg Warner, Bonneville County Emergency Communications Center Director, said the county’s dispatch team found the concept fascinating, because for the first time they could see what was happening: “It’s a dramatic shift in their normal dispatching duties. They like the idea that they can see and express what they’re seeing in real time to law enforcement, fire and paramedics. Historically, law enforcement would respond to an active shooter situation blind, and now they could have a site assessment before they get on scene. We would certainly promote it here because we want to give first responders everything they need for the best possible outcome.”

Some of that prize money may go toward getting the dispatchers what they need for a successful outcome as well, as City of Ammon Technology Director Bruce Patterson says he expects the county and school district to use their portions of the funds to purchase equipment needed for full implementation and to develop standard operating procedures. The city, which loaned some equipment to the county and school district during the development phase, will use its funds as needed to support the other two entities in their efforts.

While Ammon provided help to the county and school district to help them become part of the project, the city also received assistance in becoming involved in the Challenge in the first place. Ammon belongs to U.S. Ignite, an organization that promotes the use of high bandwidth resources to develop transformative and innovative advanced technology, and the organization brought the Challenge to Ammon’s attention because of the city’s existing fiber optic network.

Patterson says Ammon considered various options before deciding on the plan for the Challenge-winning app: “I knew the school district had these IP cameras and there were concerns about sharing the feed with the sheriff’s department and dispatch 24/7. We came up with the idea of creating an automated system that would send an alert if triggered by a gunshot report. The idea advanced from providing dispatch with a still photo of the shooter to ultimately giving them access to all of the school’s cameras, which is actually easier to implement.”

The city established a goal of using existing technology as much as possible, adding the automation of gunshot sensors to the existing high-speed network and camera system.

“The idea of a network capable of instantly building a connection and providing bandwidth based on an automated trigger could, in addition, serve any number of future applications. For example, a trigger based on facial recognition of a trigger based on a crowd of people fleeing down a hallway would be easy to implement using the foundation laid in this project,” Patterson says; such an application could prove life-saving in the event of an active threat using a knife or other silent weapon. “By making what we created extensible, it can serve many other purposes in the future.”

The Ammon team explained the concept well enough in its Phase I proposal that the city advanced to Phase II of the Challenge, which entailed actually developing and building the app. An immediate challenge arose with the gunshot sensor portion of the project: while sensors work well outdoors where sound travels in one direction, indoor sensing is another matter, particularly in a school filled with slamming locker doors and other loud, sharp background noises. The partnering sensor vendor persisted, using ongoing recording throughout the school year to continually refine and improve the product’s false-positive ratio to the point that Patterson says that most of the time, it’s accurate within three feet. The vendor achieved those results through several rounds of testing the sensors against shots fired inside the school from multiple handguns and rifles of differing calibers, he says, using the data collected to refine the sensors’ algorithm to filter out everything but gunfire.

“We felt pretty confident going in that we could do it because the technological barriers were low, and the biggest barrier turned out to be people and policies. Nobody thought it was a bad idea, but there were concerns, although those faded when they saw the accuracy of the demo. Now the county and school district just need to develop policies that meet their comfort levels,” Patterson says. “And once there is investment on the part of the people using the system, they will think of how to improve or expand on it.”

While the policy and procedure development will primarily come from Warner and the Emergency Communications Center team, the school district and the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office also have roles in the future of the project, as they have throughout the initial development stages. In addition, Capt. Samuel Hulse of the sheriff’s office, the primary liaison with the city, thinks the system could have future applications outside the school system.

“If you look at what’s happened nationally over the past 20 years, when an active shooter event happens, the information is always spotty. Law enforcement knows there is a problem, but it’s hard to give an accurate picture to responding units. I recognize this would be a valuable technology for schools, but it could also be deployed in other areas that draw large crowds, like football stadiums or movie theaters,” Hulse says. “It’s a good technology and it will be interesting to see what the next generation of sensors looks like, because the technology is close but it’s not ready to deploy on a mass scale. It’s good that the app has a person inserted into it early, because human eyes look at it from the dispatch center and can make a judgment about what they see.”

John Pymm, director of Safety Operations and Facilities for the school district, shares Hulse’s enthusiasm for the project: “In my role as the director of safety, I of course pay very close attention to active shooter situations throughout the country, and the one thing that has become crystal clear is that response time means everything as far as saving lives. When Bruce approached the school district to be part of a project that could dramatically reduce response time, we were definitely in.”

During the development phase, the project installed 11 sensors in Sand Creek Middle School, but approximately one-third of the school still lacks coverage, and the district plans to use some of the Challenge money to finish placing sensors throughout the facility. Pymm says there has been talk of setting Sand Creek up as a full pilot site that would be open to visitors from outside the area, but those plans have not been discussed in depth.

“My hope is we can finish the school and move forward from there. As a school district, we very much appreciate the cooperation we’ve had with the City of Ammon and the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office, and we’re very proud to be a part of moving this technology forward,” Pymm says.

The NIJ Challenge Program

The National Institute of Justice Ultra-High-Speed (UHS) Application Challenge sought the creation of apps that are compatible with UHS networks and measurably improve the efficiency and effectiveness of criminal justice and public safety services and operation.

Challenges can serve as alternatives to the traditional grant-making process and provide a more flexible vehicle to broaden the scope of potential applicants and drive innovation, generating products such as the Torrance Police Department’s mapping app, second-prize winner of the NIJ UHS App Challenge.

“The federal government uses a variety of funding mechanisms to accomplish goals and activities. Each vehicle has its own merits and fulfills a different purpose,” says Nancy Merritt, NIJ Senior Policy Advisor. “The benefit of the Challenge process is that it allows for more flexibility, with the potential to bring in a wider, more diverse, field of applicants. We are able to go beyond the criminal justice field and draw from other fields to tap into a pool of innovators who we might not reach otherwise.”

The NIJ Challenge program is part of the overall federal Challenge program that began in 2010. The NIJ UHS Challenge’s first-prize winner, the School Emergency Screencast Application, recently received the Challenge.gov award for best software/apps. The app uses existing camera systems, ultrahigh speed bandwidth and gunshot detection hardware to report fire immediately to first responders. Video and audio feeds then allow emergency personnel to identify an active shooter and provide potentially life-saving information to improve response time and tactical decisions. (For details on the app, see TechBeat September/October 2015.)

In addition, Merritt was recognized by Challenge.gov as one of the “unsung heroes” who work behind the scenes in their agencies on Challenge programs.

The Challenge process can also save federal agencies money because funds are only expended when a successful solution, that meets the prescribed criteria, is developed and chosen. “Therefore, the taxpayer pays only for products that are delivered and meet, or exceed, stated expectations,” Merritt says.

For the UHS Challenge, NIJ worked collaboratively with the National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to promote the development and evaluation of criminal justice software applications that are compatible with UHS networks. For the purposes of this evaluation, NIJ considered UHS to be 100Mbps symmetrical up to 1Gbps symmetrical.