After several days of inclement weather that curtailed outdoor recess, the children racing around the playground seem supercharged with energy from all the sunshine. Then a shriek cuts through the bright scene: “Help, help, he’s having a seizure!” As the playground aide races toward the cries, she makes one click on her portable radio, and immediately alerts emergency dispatch to respond to the school.
The Northmont School District in Englewood, Ohio, has many uses for the 260 portable radios in operation throughout the school system, and in January 2014, the district implemented a new one: For a mere $350 in programming costs, staff acquired a direct line to emergency dispatch via an unused frequency offered by the Englewood Police Department.
“We had a frequency we had been using primarily as a backup, so we held a meeting with the district’s support people and offered to let the schools use it,” says Sgt. Mike Lang, coordinator of daytime operations and communications for the police department that serves this Dayton suburb.
“Our elementary school resource officer (Corey Follick) was looking for ways to improve our response to the schools, and I suggested that we give them access to this frequency. It was kind of a no-brainer, because it uses a tool they already had in their hands and felt comfortable in using.”
Jenny Wood, public information officer for the 5,400-student Northmont School District, explains that the school system uses the radios to communicate day-to-day information within buildings. Teachers, administrators, playground supervisors and others all carry the portables and use them for intraschool communication: “From what I understand not many school districts have this kind of direct link to law enforcement. We’re excited about it, and at the same time, we hope we never have to use it in an active shooter situation. However, just knowing we have it gives us peace of mind.”
The programming that brought about that peace of mind took place during the 2013-2014 winter break for the district’s six elementary schools, middle school and high school. Training on the use of the “new” frequency complemented an extensive active shooter drill. Wood says the drill involved the entire staff, from teachers to bus drivers to food service personnel, and that participants rotated roles giving individuals the opportunity to play a student, a teacher, an observer and so on.
“We wanted them to get an idea of what law enforcement response would be like in the event of an active shooter. We wanted them to hear gunshots and screaming, to hit all of their senses. You can practice 10 times with ‘This is a lockdown,’ and going through the steps, but when you hear gunshots, your reaction and the way you feel is very different,” Wood says. “We do regular fire drills and tornado drills, and we figured if we do that, we should be doing this also.”
Lang says his department has planned some beginning drills and plans to add use of the radios in the active shooter drills in the future: “If they become accustomed to using them in drills and in routine situations, then if they need to use them in situations that aren’t routine, it just becomes a natural process. They’re already used to having the radios, and having the channel available just adds another strength to the mix. If they need to use it in an emergency, all they have to do is click over to the correct channel and notify the communications center.”
Once notified, the communications center has the ability to dispatch the fire department and EMS as well as the police department, if needed, and communications center staff can patch the school’s radios directly into the law enforcement channel, setting up a direct connection between police and someone on the scene.
“Having someone on the inside who is in direct communication with the first responders, with the command post, that makes it a great tool,” Lang says.