Emergency Communication

New York State Sheriffs’ Association Connects Schools With Affordable Emergency Response System

Location: New York By Becky Lewis Published July 2015

The record-breaking cold that set in over the weekend sent the town’s residents shivering indoors. And it also started a crack in an aging, uninsulated pipe near the high school’s cafeteria. A crack that suddenly opened wide Monday morning, drenching lunch ingredients with water in a powerful blast that sent one worker running to call 911 and another to the computer in the manager’s office. A web-based computer connected to the school’s emergency response system, which quickly told the worker where to find the shut-off valve and stop the waterfall pouring into the kitchen.

Starting with a pilot project in one school in 2014, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association (NYSSA) has partnered with the state’s Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to make an emergency response system available to K-12 public schools in the state. NYSSA, the driving force behind the development of the project, provides coordination assistance for schools during the documentation phase and acts as a statewide liaison for the first responders, and the BOCES made the emergency response system an aidable program, which means qualifying schools can obtain financial assistance with the operating costs.

NYSSA Deputy Executive Director Charles Gallo says when a school signs on, it receives a list of required information, which includes evacuation plans, building schematics, staffing, emergency response plans and more. NYSSA assists with coordinating input into the system, and makes site visits to take photographs and to hold planning meetings with local emergency responders: “We might take a photo of the interior of only one classroom if they look similar, but we take pictures out the windows to establish the line of sight. Every school is different and the information the schools store can be different. We talk about specific needs and how to develop information that will be needed when we hold the pre-plan tactical meeting, which includes not just the local sheriff’s office and school officials, but also local police, fire, EMS and state police.”

When the documentation process ends, NYSSA provides further assistance with training and tabletop exercises to make sure everyone understands how to use the system, as well as the ins and outs of emergency staging. Schools can also use the system in various non-emergency situations, such as planning for a big football game or coordinating fire and other disaster drills.

“It’s essentially an electronic storage cabinet for everything that schools previously kept in a three-ring binder. It includes information on the internal structure, such as the location of stored chemicals, lockboxes, fire suppression, and more, all of it digitized, stored in the Cloud and available in a automatically updated web-based format that can be accessed by all stakeholders,” Gallo says, adding that school administrators decide who has rights to make changes, such as inputting more photographs and adding or deleting personnel. The system also includes a smartphone app that can provide two-way communication and photograph transmission during an emergency, and a stored static version that can be accessed if Internet connectivity fails during a crisis.

Deciding on the use of this all-hazards interactive crisis management system, which is SAFETY Act certified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, came about as the end result of a two-year NYSSA search for a school safety project that could help meet the emergency planning needs of the state’s 7,000-plus public schools.

“Right now there are 140 schools involved in the project, across five BOCES. We are moving regionally, and our plan is to ensure that eventually every school district in the state, including those in New York City, has a coordinated emergency response plan in place,” Gallo says.

And in the process of ensuring those emergency response plans are in place, NYSSA is learning that many schools are inadequately prepared, as it takes them a long time to even locate the needed information: “If these schools were to have an event, they wouldn’t know where the information is themselves, let alone be able to get it to law enforcement. Once they’re part of the emergency response system, the information available will be consistent and first responders will learn that accessibility to relevant information for all schools is just a click or two away.”