Emergency Communication

Connecticut Town Adapts Technology for School Safety

Location: Connecticut By Becky Lewis Published November 2013

“Code Red. West Vine Street School. Police are on their way.”

As the message goes out across the school’s public address system and alert lights begin to flash, simultaneous dispatches go out to the local police department, to fire and rescue, and to a neighboring law enforcement agency for mutual aid. Fire doors close and lock throughout the school building, confining the intruder to a small space. An officer in the department’s command center activates access to the school’s surveillance cameras, ready to direct the first responders who are already pulling into the parking lot to the spot where they are needed.

“Our estimation is it cuts our response time down by one to two minutes,” Stonington (Conn.) Police Chief Darren Stewart says of the Code Red button pilot program launched at West Vine earlier in 2013. “Every second that goes by is another opportunity for an intruder, and every second we can shave off our response moves up the time when the police arrive and his focus shifts away from the students to the officers.”

Stonington, a town of 18,000 full-time residents located near the Rhode Island line, has six public and two private schools totaling approximately 3,000 students. A task force selected the West Vine school for the pilot project for two reasons: it is near a highway and also is a fairly small school (235 students). The group began meeting just weeks after the incident at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012, and it included Police Capt. Jerry Desmond, Board of Police Commissioners and School Department support staff, and representatives of the school system (such as Superintendent of Public Schools Van Riley, Headmaster Stephen Bennhoff of Pine Point School and Principal Doris Messina of St. Michael School). The members’ review of existing school safety measures and brainstorming new ideas led to the project to adapt burglar and fire alarm technology, with assistance from Assistant Chief Kevin Burns of the Pawcatuck Fire Department, into the Code Red button. The devices, one per classroom, use a protective plastic cover to prevent accidental alerts, and the community’s public safety agencies worked together to develop response protocols that include how to handle apparent false alarms.

“We took existing technology and adapted it to fit school safety. I really must say that the committee was incredible in determining what would work and what would not work. This didn’t come from me, it came from them, and they did an outstanding job putting this together,” Stewart says.

In addition, Stonington’s police officers drop in to visit at all of the local schools on a regular basis; all schools have a radio tuned to local dispatch in their offices; and their card reader systems give automatic 24/7 access to law enforcement officers.

“Schools can reach us immediately by hitting the microphone on the radio, and the other schools in the district also can hear the call and decide whether to go to Code Yellow and implement precautionary measures. This allows the schools to work as a team and not be in the dark about something happening nearby,” Stewart says. “It doesn’t take away calling 911, it’s just another means of communication.”

In addition to the safeguards already in place, plans for the future include adding the Code Red button system to one school each year until all of the town’s schools have the system (pending funding availability; the system costs approximately $10,000 to install). The Stonington Police Department also is looking into the possibility of establishing police substations in local schools, where officers could spend some time during the school day filing reports and making telephone calls, and the school system has independently installed protective film on some windows.

“What we have is a partnership with our schools. Several times during the school year, I sit down with the superintendent, the headmaster and the principal for a status meeting. I give them a lot of credit for being in tune with everything that’s going on in the world,” Stewart says. “We share a goal of making our community as safe as possible for the kids, the teachers and the schools, and we hope we never have to use any of these safeguards.”