The Importance of Coordinated Communications
Keeping schools safe in an emergency situation hinges on effective communications
- By Les Miller
- October 01, 2018
Educators are challenged with not only educating children
but also guiding them safely into successful adulthood.
However, they face ample challenges in that endeavor—
the rise of cyberbullying, even as schools gain traction in
reducing traditional bullying activity, ongoing budget
pressures as communities demand more services while funding for
core programming decreases, the increase in technological distractions
for students and, tragically, the inexplicable acts of violence we
see far too often in the news.
Not surprisingly, student and staff safety is top of mind for school
officials. In a recent survey of educators by Motorola Solutions, an
overwhelming 92 percent said creating a safe, secure environment is a
priority. To that end, an overriding question applies: Do you have a
communication plan ready in the event of a school emergency, and the
equipment to execute it?
K-12 schools admirably pursue the latest security and safety technology,
ranging from video cameras and lockdown systems to emergency
push notifications and access control. These can be amazing
assets in the effort to preserve student and staff safety. However, reliable
emergency communications—the network and technology that
allow school officials to communicate with each other and, ideally, first
responders during an incident—remains a critical (and sometimes
overlooked) foundation of the entire school safety effort.
In the most tragic incidents, the value and importance of coordinated
communication between school officials and law enforcement
agencies cannot be overstated. For example, Guy Grace, the director of
security and emergency planning for the Littleton Public Schools in
Colorado, credits an observant maintenance staffer and Motorola Solutions’
two-way APX radios for limiting the loss of life at a school shooting
at Arapahoe High School in a Denver suburb. When the commercial
cellular networks were overwhelmed by traffic, the only means of
communication available to Grace’s team and the first responders during
those critical moments was the two-way radio network.
While school shootings appear far too often in the news, they are a
rarity compared to the “everyday emergencies” school staffers deal
with regularly. From an injured soccer player to vandalism in the parking
lot, school resource officers and security staff are asked to smoothly
and quickly manage a dizzying array of issues on a daily basis. The
ability to consistently communicate among educators and potential
outside resources is a daily necessity, not something that only applies in the most horrible circumstances.
A joint study conducted by the Rand Corporation in conjunction
with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and multiple universities
supports this observation. In their survey of schools large and
small in rural, suburban and urban areas, they concluded that one of
the few topics that resonated with all respondents was the indisputable
need for reliable two-way communications with first responders.
FOCUS ON EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATIONS
The safety challenges they face make it vital for school officials to be
proactive in preparing to deal with emergencies of all types. Given the
variety of job functions supported by a school—maintenance workers,
bus drivers, cafeteria workers, security personnel, counselors, administrators,
teachers, and, of course, students—educational institutions
must ensure they consider all possible threat vectors and associated
communications plans when an emergency arises.
With the right communications infrastructure in place, schools can
better connect with their own personnel as well as with the public
safety agencies that respond to incidents. Understandably, a growing
number of educational institutions are proactively assessing their
emergency communications systems and improving them to minimize
risks. For example:
Fremont School District 79. Serving over 2,000 students in Mundelein,
Illinois—the school district adopted a more robust and reliable
radio communications system than its previous push-to-talk cellular
technology because of the growing number of school violence incidents
Elmore County Public School District. Among the fastest growing
in Mississippi, Elmore County Public School District upgraded its
communication system to include GPS tracking and technology to
extend the reach of its digital radios to non-radio users in a move to
better connect with its bus fleet to improve student safety.
Fulton County (Georgia) School District. Decisions were made to
upgrade an obsolete video surveillance system with high-definition
cameras with self-learning video analytics, network video recorders
and video management software. Now when video administrators spot
something out of the norm, they can immediately radio their in-school
police force to investigate further.
In each of these scenarios—even those deploying sophisticated new
technology—the fundamental purpose remains the same: gather critical
information quickly, so it can be communicated to the appropriate
personnel to minimize risks.
SUPPLY IMMEDIATE, INFORMATIVE COMMUNICATIONS
Reliable communications create an environment where nobody is left
in the dark. In an emergency, schools must strive for communications
with students, parents and particularly to first responders that is both
immediate and informative. When responding to an emergency, effective
communications allow first responders en route to see into the
event as it unfolds, better preparing themselves to take appropriate and
efficient actions once they arrive.
In an optimal scenario, first responders would be able to communicate
directly on their radios with the users of a school-based radio
system when an emergency arises, securely gathering information
from educators while bypassing commercial networks that may be
swamped by panicked students and parents. A comprehensive solution
like this would also include regular co-training between public safety
and school personnel in emergency drills, and training educators in
the art of speaking concisely and clearly when communicating during
Many school districts pursue effective emergency communications
by simply outfitting key personnel such as School Resource Officers
and security teams with the more resilient radios used by first responders.
This ensures that school security personnel—who are often already sworn officers of a local police force—can communicate directly with
public safety when emergencies arise. These school security officers
often act as a “human bridge,” carrying a school radio for day-to-day
communications with school staff as well as a more robust public safety
radio for emergency coordination.
Beyond the school resource officer and security team, public safety
agencies can be reluctant to provide school staff open access to their
radio system. Considering the mission-critical nature of their communications,
agencies have understandable concerns about the risk of
accidental radio channel use or cross-communication. We all recognize
the value of only hearing radio traffic intended for us.
Aside from privacy risks, public safety radios can also be cost-prohibitive
to equip an entire school staff, and the devices themselves—
built to be reliable in the most challenging environments—are larger
and heavier than what might be practical for a teacher or administrator.
Commercial-grade radios, which still deliver instant communication
and purpose-built design, provide a cost-effective solution that includes
advanced capabilities and even an application ecosystem to meet the
variety of needs of staff throughout the district. The key is to have the
appropriate communications device and capability to enhance your
daily operations and respond immediately in any emergency situation.
Ultimately, whether it is on a first responder network or a commercial
radio network, private communications systems ensure schools of
capacity, control and reliability during even the most extreme emergencies.
School districts that build their emergency response plans
around commercial carrier networks run the risk of that network
being overwhelmed with traffic at the moment when communications
matter the most.
EDUCATORS VOICE THEIR WISH LIST
A Motorola Solutions survey of K-12 educators identified a disturbing
gap between the communications and safety solutions schools desired
to protect students and staff and the available budget to reach that goal.
Almost 70 percent of respondents said insufficient funding was the
main reason for not improving their school communications. Fundamental
safety capabilities such as text messaging, GPS location tracking
and the ability to interrupt conversations to give precedence to
critical messages were preferred among respondents. Fortunately, a
long-overdue focus on school safety across the nation has prompted an
aggressive round of grant funding, which schools are strongly encouraged
Preserving the safety of students and educators is a goal that everyone
shares. The foundation of that effort is effective emergency communications
that allow school staff and first responders to interact
instantly, without boundaries and with added
intelligence. School officials who pursue such
solutions move their districts and communities
closer to that ideal of a safe, secure environment
where children can learn and grow.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.