Emergency Communication

“Panic Button” Radios Could Save the Seconds That Count

Location: New Hampshire By Becky Lewis Published June 2014

Recycling has taken on a whole new meaning in Salem, N.H.: It could save lives as well as resources.

Not long after the incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, the police department in Salem (pop. 28,776) began replacing its radios, and Officer Matt Norcross, the department’s roving school resource officer for the town’s six elementary schools, came up with a suggestion for repurposing the old units: “There was a lot of talk in the media and locally about schools installing panic buttons, but some panic buttons have to relay at an alarm company and that adds time to our response. In the event of a situation like what happened at Sandy Hook, someone who truly wants to get in doesn’t wait for someone to open the door, they smash their way in. Response time is critical.”

To speed up response time, Norcross suggested placing one of the older radios in each school, with every function disabled except the panic button that connects a user directly to 911 dispatch. The radios are located in each principal’s office and authorized users are instructed to hit the button only in the event of a life-threatening emergency. Each radio is programmed with the name of the originating school, which will show on the dispatch screen and on terminals in the department’s cruisers, so they immediately know the location of the emergency.

“If there’s an accident on school grounds, or a parent yelling in the lobby, they know to call 911, because if this button is activated, it will immediately initiate an all-out response. The individual who pushed it will be able to have a brief conversation with the dispatcher and describe the emergency, but our procedures also instruct them to keep the channel clear for police use as much as possible,” Norcross says. “I think for us that ability to gather information is key. It’s not ┬ájust a static alarm.”

Salem PD placed one radio in each of the town’s six elementary schools, and two in the high school and middle school due to the buildings’ size. The SROs — Norcross and two other officers assigned specifically to the middle school and high school — regularly test the radios and ensure that office staff who have access are well-versed in the written procedures for use. Frequencies used by other public safety agencies in the area have been removed, so all outgoing calls go only to the Salem Police Department. Schools can also use the radios to monitor public safety activities in their area.

“If they hear sirens go by their school, they can listen to see if something is going on that they need to be aware of. We do alert them about incidents in the neighborhood, but this is a fallback for them,” Norcross says.

He has shared the idea at several events, including the Massachusetts Juvenile Police Officers Association annual school safety conference in early 2014. There, its simplicity drew attention from Michelle Gay, one of the founders of Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative (http://www.safeandsoundschools.org/our-team-safe-and-sound-schools/), who began promoting it on the organization’s website.

“We want all agencies and school districts to hear about what we’re doing here in Salem,” Norcross says. “We were fortunate in that we were in the process of replacing our radios, so the idea cost us nothing. There would be an expense involved for an agency that is not in the same situation, but we believe there’s no way to initiate a response faster. And in today’s world, every second counts.”