When the boy wouldn’t return to his seat, when he began walking toward the front of the classroom, aggression showing in every nuance of his body language, the teacher knew she needed help. She also knew that verbalizing that call for help might provoke the enraged teen even further, so, while still trying to talk to him in a calm voice, she casually walked behind her computer and past it again, reaching out to flick the mouse over an icon on the desktop. Seconds later, help was on the way.
A new emergency alert software released in spring 2013 allows teachers and other school staff to instantaneously, silently send emergency alerts directly to local law enforcement officers in their patrol cars, to the local dispatch office, to the registered cell phones of other teachers and administrators in the same school building and to the computers in all of the other classrooms. The town of Sweetwater, Texas, (population approximately 12,000) and the local sheriff's office became the first municipality and county in the nation to go live with the service on May 1, following a month of setup and training.
“I hope and I pray every day that we won’t ever need it, but we’re ready if we do,” says Sweetwater Police Chief Brian Frieda. “Once the school district heard about it, they pounced on it. There’s no sense in hesitating to use some good technology that helps with security of our kids.”
The emergency alert creates a chat room among the computer sending the alert, the responding officers and the local dispatch center, which permits them to communicate information about the emergency in real-time. Responding officers can also click a link and view a diagram of the school and a map showing the school’s location.
Frieda and the Sweetwater Police Department heard about the software from Nolan County Sheriff David Warren, who played an instrumental role in helping introduce the concept to the Sweetwater Independent School District. The district serves approximately 2,300 students from pre-kindergarten through 12 on six campuses: one high school, one middle school, three schools each housing two elementary grades and a pre-K center. The police department and the school system have already held several drills with the software, and Frieda says his department will incorporate it into its active shooter training this summer, when his 22 sworn officers and two reserve officers will use one of the school buildings for scenario training.
“Once the school year starts, we will have a series of scenario drills where teachers launch the system and get comfortable with it. We’ve already heard from other nearby school districts that they’re interested in implementing it as well,” Frieda says. Drills will involve both the use of the silent alarm and the chat room function, wherein the teacher, or a student designated by the teacher, uses the computer to send instant messages with additional information to school personnel, responding patrol vehicles and dispatch.
Frieda explains that if the initial activation isn’t aborted within seconds, officers immediately respond in a manner similar to the way they would to a 911 hang-up call. Receiving an alert, even with no further information, provides the agency with the exact location of the alarm and gives officers access to a diagram of the campus and GPS directions to the location: “This gives us more of a tactical advantage. As officers arrive on the scene, they can take a quick look and increase their situational awareness.”
“I have it set up to come across my desktop at work, the laptop in my car and on my smartphone. That lets me keep up with everything that’s going to the officers,” he adds.