The Importance of Coordinated Communications

Cover Story

The Importance of Coordinated Communications

Keeping schools safe in an emergency situation hinges on effective communications

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 nationwide.

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 an emergency.

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 to pursue.

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.

Digital Edition

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    July/August 2019

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