The Importance Of Fire Alarms
How duress alarm systems work during evacuations
- By Michael Um
- November 01, 2017
IN 1958, DISASTER STRUCK CHICAGO’S OUR LADY OF
THE ANGELS SCHOOL IN THE FORM OF FIRE. AS EVACUATIONS
BEGAN, A TEACHER MANAGED TO PULL THE
FIRE ALARM WHILE LEAVING THE BUILDING—BUT NO
ALARM SOUNDED. THE TEACHER GOT HER CHILDREN
OUTSIDE, AND THEN WENT BACK INTO THE SCHOOL TO
PULL THE FIRE ALARM AGAIN.
This time the alarm did sound, but it was not connected to the local
fire department. In fact, not only did the building have no direct connection
to fire department, it also had no automatic fire alarm at all.
Though smoke detectors had yet to appear on the market, there were
rate-of-rise heat detectors, but none were installed. A member of the
housekeeping staff did finally alert the Chicago Fire Department, but
unfortunately relayed the wrong address, so their arrival was delayed.
In the meantime, 95 people who received late warning lost their lives,
92 of them being children.
The response to this disaster was rapid and sweeping. National Fire
Protection Association (NFPA) codes were revised and buildings
remodeled with more exits and fire alarms that could communicate
directly with fire departments. It was one of the most effective public
safety efforts on record. Since 1958, there has not been a single school
fire that has cost the lives of more than 10 people.
Today we face a new public safety crisis in the form of school violence,
including active shooter events. We have the opportunity to
respond just as comprehensively. Wireless K-12 duress alarm systems
have been designed to provide a similar rapid and effective response to
these new challenges. This article will describe the capabilities of a
wireless K-12 duress alarm system and walk through the path of a
duress alarm, from event to resolution.
WHAT IS A WIRELESS K-12 DURESS ALARM SYSTEM
AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
Most schools train and plan for the potential of an active shooter
event, however school shootings are only the most extreme and rarest
examples of school violence. School violence events do include active
shooters, but can also be anything else that requires the assistance from
law enforcement. These types of violent events usually occur when a
teacher or staff member considers themselves to be in imminent danger
or becomes aware of a broader emergency event.
These can mean a violent incident or the threat of violence, but also
an unauthorized visitor, a disgruntled and disruptive parent, or the
discovery of a weapon on school grounds.
There are some components of a wireless duress alarm system that
can be automated. Alarms can be activated automatically by glassbreak
and gunshot detectors, for instance. However, the alarm is usually
human activated. The manner of activating will depend on the duress
infrastructure in the school. Some schools have installed pull stations
or fixed panic buttons to be pressed in the case of an emergency; others
have distributed mobile panic buttons to teachers and staff to be carried
with them at all times. In any case, it is almost always a staff member
or teacher who perceives a threat and activates the alarm.
Once the alarm is active, it must be transmitted to the head end. In
a wireless system, repeaters are located throughout the campus to
route the signal to a wireless receiver which passes it to the control
panel; or, in the case of an-IP enabled system, to the head-end application,
which is usually a dedicated server. Because of the nature of these
types of alarms, the wireless infrastructure for any duress alarm system
must be able to withstand RF interference, overcome obstacles due to
construction, and guarantee multiple paths from the alarm transmitter
to the receiver. Typically, this means the infrastructure uses frequencyhopping,
spread-spectrum technology to meet the reliability demands
of a life safety network.
Once the alarm is received at the control panel or head-end application,
the central monitoring station is automatically notified. Central monitoring stations are third-party services
dedicated to the monitoring of alarm systems.
When a K-12 duress alarm is received by a
central monitoring station, the police are
immediately notified and dispatched within a
matter of seconds. This type of alarm is as
reliable and immediate as a fire alarm, eliminating
as much of the potential for human
error as possible.
At the same time that the police are notified,
the school resource officer or security
office will also receive the alarm. Internal
security resources will respond according to
the district’s standard response protocol, usually
by initiating any actions that are not automated,
such as a preprogrammed public
address announcement that informs faculty
and staff of the emergency. In many cases, this
also means strobe lights or some other alert of
the emergency situation. Once notified, faculty
and staff respond according to the standard
Lockout and/or Lockdown:
Upon notification, the faculty and staff initiate
a lockdown or lockout per the standard
response protocol. During a lockout, all students
are brought inside the school and all
exterior doors are locked; during a lockdown,
students are brought into the classroom and
situated away from the doors and windows,
and then the doors are locked and the lights
turned out. Usually lockdowns and lockouts
are initiated by school staff or the school
resource officer because lockdown and lockout
procedures target different kinds of
threats. A lockout is triggered by a threat perceived
outside of the school; a lockdown by a
threat inside the school.
During secondary notification, texts,
emails, and even voice calls are made to a
command group designated by the school.
This group can include the principal, administrators,
and even teachers. In some cases,
texts and emails can include a map of the
school along with the location where the
alarm was activated and lockout or lockdown
instructions. This can even be a two-way message,
so that teachers can text back with status
updates. In the case of those systems where
this is not automated, the notification will be
provided by school staff, the security office, or
the school resource officer.
At the same time as notification is made to
the command group, texts and emails can also
be sent to the responding police officers,
including a map of the school and notification
of the location of the alarm, as well as a link to
video feeds for the school. If it is a two-way
message, the police can provide instructions
and status updates to staff on the inside.
Once the threat is resolved, either internally
or by the police, the system will be reset.
At this point the standard response protocol
should be examined against actions taken to
ensure compliance, as well as to seek improvement
of the process.
The 1958 fire at Chicago’s Our Lady of the
Angels school provided a wakeup call to the
nation. The resulting procedures and improvements
to alarm infrastructure have saved
countless lives since. Nobody questions this.
In the same way, we have an opportunity to
address a new threat to public safety: School
violence. Though school shootings are the
most visible manifestation of school violence,
it can arise from a nearly infinite number of
causes, and come from almost any member of
the community who comes in contact with
the school. Wireless K-12 alarm duress systems
have been designed exactly for this type
of complex public safety crisis.
The unfortunate fact is that teachers and
staff members are usually the first responders,
and in all too many cases they are the only
responders. Teachers and staff must have the
training and tools necessary to keep themselves
and their students safe.
As the improvements of fire alarm systems
after Our Lady of the Angels school fire gave
teachers and staff a way to immediately notify
the fire department in the event of a fire, wireless
K-12 alarm duress systems give them a way
to immediately notify law enforcement in the
event of violence. Both
are necessary to provide a
way to summon help
when it is needed.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of CSLS.