Emergency Communication

Building “Bridges” That Enhance Communications

Location: Ohio By Becky Lewis Published March 2014

Go ahead, sir, you’re talking to EMS now.

We’ve got a girl, here, a first-grader, and she’s turned her ankle. She can’t stand on it, but there’s no sign of a bad break or blood or anything. Can I move her? Carry her inside? It’s hot, and she’s on blacktop.

Sure, go ahead and carry her inside. Tell us where you’re taking her so we can come straight to you.

We’ll be waiting in the infirmary.

I’m not familiar with the layout of that school, can you tell me which entrance to use? How to find the infirmary?

First responders to the Chardon (Ohio) School District in situations like the hypothetical one described above, or more serious events, can have similar conversations with school personnel as part of a project with School Safe Communications, a Web-enabled two-way radio-based product that allows 911 dispatchers to establish a radio bridge between school radio systems and public safety radio systems. In early March, approximately 250 school staff received, and began training on, these radio units. The system replaces “walkie talkies” with limited capability that involved relaying messages from one place to another within the school, and did not allow for direct communication with public safety agencies. Chardon School District Superintendent Michael Hanlon says the project significantly expedites communication and could potentially put resources in place much more quickly.

“We allocated radios to our incident control and operations people, to our principals, to our custodians and to our school resource officers. These are folks who are available and move around the buildings. We also placed them with teachers in strategically identified classrooms to create a logical perimeter around each of our six school buildings. They’re located near exits and down main hallways, and they create a communications net,” Hanlon says.

Personnel use a primary channel on a regular basis for day-to-day school operations; a secondary channel comes into play in the event of an emergency incident. Hanlon says he has a link on his desktop and school administrators can use it to create bridges between buildings if, for example, students need to be shifted from one building to another due to an incident that wouldn’t involve public safety, such as a broken water pipe.

“We went through two training sessions, starting with operability training because our staff just doesn’t spend a lot of time on radios. We also had joint interoperability training with our public safety resource agencies,” Hanlon says. “We used a scenario that included an intruder in the building, a lockdown drill and use of the bridge. Every time we run a drill like that in the future, we will become more effectively ready to respond if an emergency situation occurs.”

Geauga County Sheriff Dan McClelland echoes Hanlon’s position, saying: “I think any time you can enhance communications, you greatly improve the opportunity to coordinate response. That’s exactly what this project will do for us.”

Hanlon says that the Chardon School District has always had an excellent relationship with the community’s first responders, planning, drilling and taking a proactive approach, and using the radio system will serve to make that relationship even stronger.

“Every school district in the country is looking for ways to improve safety, security and incident response. Implementing this technology seemed like the next logical step for us in promoting safety and security on our campuses,” Hanlon says.

The need to keep improving incident response is something the district knows about firsthand. On Feb. 27, 2012, Thomas Lane, a Chardon student, entered the school cafeteria at approximately 7:30 a.m. and fired 10 rounds from a .22 handgun; three students ultimately died and three others who were wounded survived, one of them permanently paralyzed.

“The cellular phone system infrastructure became overloaded with the amount of calls being placed by 1,100 students, staff and faculty, and that slowed down the updates we received,” McClelland says. “We were able to apprehend the suspect in spite of the information lag, but if this system had been in place then, communication would have been better. With the school system using these radios for day-to-day communications, it will just be second nature for school staff to use the radios if they need to talk to us.”

Chardon Police Chief Tim McKenna agrees on the importance of day-to-day use of the system and the school district’s ability to communicate directly with public safety during minor incidents: “It’s another tool in our tool belt. There are a number of school safety initiatives taking place in Ohio and around the country. I think we were probably approached to try this system out because of the 2012 shooting, and in light of that event, I wanted to make sure that everyone was in favor of it and involved in the planning and implementation.”

Numerous schools in the western part of the United States already have implemented use of the radios, and the provider’s desire to launch a project that encompassed an entire school district east of the Mississippi led to Chardon’s being approached. Representatives of the school district and a number of public safety agencies came together to work out the details of the project, prior to launching it in the six public schools and two nearby private school campuses. All of those agencies participated in the initial training drill as well.