Nothing disturbs the quiet as the students work on their test papers, heads bent, No. 2 pencils scratching. Nothing, that is, but the beep of a text message on their teacher’s cell phone. A text message that tells her that just seconds ago, sensors recorded a gunshot in the lobby, two floors away at the other end of the building. And only seconds more will pass before a hurried line of students, tests forgotten, heads for the stairs and evacuation to safety.
Chief Joseph Solomon of the Methuen (Mass.) Police Department and Methuen School Superintendent Judith Scannell share a fervent hope that a scenario like the one just described never becomes reality in their town. But in the event that it does, a pilot gunshot detection system recently installed in one of the town’s four grammar schools can provide the early warning that will lead teachers and students to safe evacuations or necessary lockdowns, as well as lead law enforcement officers directly to the site of the gunshots.
“The system gives you enough information to determine whether to lock down or evacuate. If you’re on the second floor of the west wing, and shots are fired on the first floor of the east wing, it gives teachers time to make an educated decision. And for law enforcement, it reduces the time to target,” Solomon says.
“When they did the demo on November 11, they fired shots on the opposite end of the building. I absolutely could not hear the shots or any commotion, but I got the text that said ‘Shot Fired’ and gave the exact location. This speaks to the minutes that are lost when something tragic is going on in a building … the minutes where lives are lost,” Scanlon says. “I think I speak for all superintendents everywhere when I say that the safety of our students is our number one priority. I’m not saying that I can 100 percent guarantee the safety of our students, because of course I can’t, but this adds another layer of security.”
The well-publicized drill that Scanlon referenced showed an audience of area police chiefs, school resource officers, school superintendents and elected officials just how effective the gunshot detection technology can be. A role-playing officer entered the building and fired a total of four shots, the first well out of earshot of the audience, the second from nearby and the third and fourth from yet another location. The school resource officer started a search immediately on receipt of the first text, and other officers joined in after an appropriate response time. Just over three minutes later, the demonstration ended, leaving an impressed audience to ply Solomon with questions for another 90 minutes. The group also heard from Democratic Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, who spoke about how technology originally developed for military use has been leveraged into a system that also has potential for public buildings, hospitals and office complexes.
The detection system uses not only acoustic sensors (as do other gunshot detection systems), it also uses infrared capability to detect the flash that accompanies gunfire, thus eliminating the possibility of false alarms generated by banging lockers and dropping books. For each confirmed shot, it provides a precise location coordinate and a time stamp, and generates an automatic call to public safety dispatch along with the text message to all teachers and staff. Developers have included an option to add cameras and/or a sound system that would provide an opportunity for direct communication.
“The system reduces the need to analyze the situation before you can react,” Solomon says. “For example, with a traffic accident, by the time a bystander processes what is going on and calls 911 to relay the information, four to five minutes have passed. The system takes care of all of that in approximately two seconds. None of our officers believed it could actually do what the developers claimed until they experienced it firsthand.”
And the public has embraced the technology as well, so much so that there is a movement to have detection systems placed in the town’s three remaining grammar schools and high school. That expansion, however, will require that Methuen locate funding to offset the costs. The developer provided the pilot system free of charge in return for beta testing feedback, which led to the no-cost permanent installation of a Version 1.0 system in August 2014. Solomon says the school selected as the pilot site is the largest in square footage of the town’s schools, and its three-story building was selected purely because of its size.
“We were fortunate to realize the free demonstration for one of our schools, and I hope to eventually see it installed in all of them,” Solomon says. “I think in the future, it should be mandated like smoke detectors.”