Reducing Response Time
Active shooter incidents on campus where you can play a vital role in gunshot detection
- By Christian Connors
- June 01, 2021
Some of the greatest challenges to campus
security include the monitoring of
multiple buildings and gathering
areas, coupled with tracking the frequent
comings and goings of students,
staff and visitors through many open access
points throughout the campus. When you add
an active shooter incident into the mix, knowing
exactly where the incident is happening in
real time is critical, so first responders can
rapidly mitigate the threat and building occupants
can quickly get to safety.
Putting it into Practice
While this concept is well understood, putting
it into practice is another story. If you
are a member of campus police or a student
on campus and you are in Building C and an
active shooter starts firing in Building A,
how do you know? When do you know?
Who notifies 911 and how long does it take?
How does that information get to you? Just as
important, is it accurate?
In reaction to the Virginia Tech shooting
in 2007, where an active shooter managed to
go undetected for two and a half hours after
his first two shots were fired in a dormitory
and later shot 47 people he locked inside an
academic hall (Panel, 2007), colleges and
universities began implementing more
robust mass notification systems.
Emergency kiosks, panic buttons, and
“blue light boxes” became more widely
deployed. These types of systems have greatly
improved emergency communications on
campuses, however they still require some
form of human element to set them off, such
as a student who presses the panic button or
a security dispatcher who must compose and
send the mass notification message.
With these systems in place, where does this
leave 911? One of the earliest and most comprehensive
studies on active shooter incidents
was a 2012 Naval postgraduate school study
which found that relying on 911 notification is
an inadequate strategy to reduce response time
in an active shooting incident, and that instead,
a “Victim Initiated Mitigation System” is the
most effective means of reducing casualties.
The Department of Homeland Security
adopted this model in their How to Respond
active shooter booklets and what became the
training commonly referred to as “Run,
Hide, Fight.” These and practices
mean that you, an innocent bystander, could
be law enforcement’s best option during
those first few seconds of shooting, because
they are still waiting for someone to call 911
before they even know to respond.
While 911 and mass notification systems
remain viable, well established solutions for
campuses, the addition of gunshot detection
can supplement these systems by filling in
critical missing gaps and improving the flow of information during an active shooter incident.
The premise behind gunshot detection
is that it will alert campus police faster than
any current method. Providing vital location
information, including where in the building
the incident is happening, cuts through typical
alert delays so more immediate response is initiated. To be most effective, the gunshot
detection system will alert before the first
911 call and integrate with mass notification,
video, public address systems and other
The real power in gunshot detection is
leveraging integration that automates alerts
to multiple parties simultaneously, including
campus security, students, staff and visitors,
so appropriate response actions can be
A Military Approach to the Active Shooter
Before we dive into how gunshot detection
technology works and how it applies to a
campus setting, it is important to note the
technology’s roots in history before it was
developed for commercial applications. As a
capability, gunshot detection first originated
in a government initiative in 1995, and sponsored
by a research arm of the Department of
Defense called the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA
sponsored the development of prototype systems
that paired acoustic muzzle blast and
ballistic shock wave signatures to predict the
location of gunfire events and associated
shooter locations. Six different systems were
developed and tested, but it wasn’t until the
Iraq War in 2003 that the need for these systems
U.S. troops were battling against an
aggressive insurgency while traversing some
of the roughest terrain on earth in noisy
Humvees, and they often did not know they
were being shot at until a fellow soldier was
hit. Knowing they were being shot at, and
being able to identify where the shots were
coming from would give them a lifesaving
and tactical advantage.
DARPA selected the company that had
produced the most successful technology
from their trials, BBN Technologies out of
Cambridge, MA, and challenged them to
rapidly develop vehicle gunshot detection
systems that could not only localize a shooter
to plus or minus 15-degree accuracy, but it
also had to report within one second of a
shot and do so on vehicles traveling up to 60
miles per hour on rough terrain and in harsh
environments. That system was quickly
deployed and is still in use today, credited
with saving the lives of soldiers in military
conflicts across the globe.
The Active Shooter Threat
In the 1990s and 2000s the United States witnessed
a rising and disturbing trend of mass
shooting incidents happening in schools,
workplaces, movie theaters and other everyday
environments. This created an influx of
active shooter solutions to the market including
ballistic glass, door locks and panic buttons.
While they might be useful, these solutions
still do not address the lack of critical
information flow as a shooting incident
unfolds – the what, when, how and where
questions still need to be answered.
To address these problems, Shooter Detection
Systems began adapting the military
gunshot detection system, known as Boomerang,
for indoor environments and brought these systems to the commercial market in 2014.
Today, gunshot detection technology is being used by higher education
organizations including Georgia Tech, Savannah College of Art and Design
and others, as well as on corporate, K-12 and government campuses.
Indoor Gunshot Detection Systems
In the process of educating yourself on what gunshot detection system
is right for your campus, it is easy to get lost in technical and
marketing jargon along the way. Before you get too far down the rabbit
hole, remember the key questions: How do you know it is a gunshot?
How is the information getting to you and others on campus?
How long does that take? Is the information accurate?
At their core, all indoor gunshot detection systems are comprised
of one or more sensors strategically positioned within facilities that
transmit gunshot alerts through a communications platform. When
evaluating sensor types, it is important to ask if the sensor will alert
automatically or if it requires any machine learning or external validation.
In other words, where is the shot processing taking place and
how quickly does that happen? If the sensor does alert automatically,
how does it filter out false alerts? If the sensor requires some kind of
external or database verification, how long does that process take?
How reliable is it? Asking these questions will help you understand
the system’s rate of detection, detection accuracy, speed of alerting
and how the sensor accomplishes these tasks.
Systems that rely on acoustics only can potentially produce false
alerts due to loud noises in the environment. Systems that use AI or
machine-learning are reliant on event comparison to a database or
library of sounds in an attempt to filter out shot events from other
sounds in the environment. Some systems send audio files to human
analysts at a monitoring station to verify “possible” shot events or
stream audio to the cloud. Audio clips sent outside of a local server
may open organizations up to privacy concerns or violate privacy
laws in hospitals and other settings.
Sensors that require manual calibration can be problematic in that
they require close monitoring and analysis for a time before they are
fine-tuned to sounds in the environment. Sensors that rely on any
type of external validation will have delays in alerting speed and run
the risk of producing false alerts.
Dual-mode or multi-mode sensors utilize acoustic detection plus
additional detection technologies onboard the sensor. Shot information
is generally processed at the sensor level, which requires no extra
steps for the system to determine that a shot event has occurred. Dig
deeper into these systems by asking what those additional modes are,
and what conditions need to be met in order for the sensor to alert.
Sensors that require both the signature of a gunshot (acoustic sensor)
and the flash of a weapon (infrared sensor) to validate a shot will be
most accurate in filtering out false alerts.
There is also power and networking to consider. Power-over-Ethernet
(PoE) has advantages but has an impact on infrastructure, and
DC power requirements could be problematic and subject to tampering.
Wireless systems are the most flexible to install, however, end
users should ask about sensor uptime and self-testing features and
how they impact battery life, and if the communications system is
secured with encryption.
Benefits and Best Practices
To put the benefit of reducing response time with gunshot detection
into perspective, the average length of an active shooter incident is
around five minutes (Investigation, 2013), with an average of one
death occurring every 5 to 15 seconds (Taylor, 2017) while active
shooting is taking place.
Ultimately, you need to be able to rely on your gunshot detection
system to automate the alerting process as early as possible and from
the incident occurring with the highest level of accuracy in order to
justify the investment. Think back to the Virginia Tech shooting. After
the dormitory shooting, the perpetrator fled the building undetected
and returned hours later to complete his mission. Thirty-two people
lost their lives when it was finally over. If gunshot detection technology
were in place to detect the initial shot, the response may have been
drastically different. Think how many lives could have been saved.
An additional benefit of gunshot detection that might get overlooked
is the impact it can have on active shooter drills and training. More than
20 years of realistic active shooter drills being conducted in schools and
other environments have shown us that these drills are potentially more
traumatizing to students and staff than they are beneficial (Safety, 2020).
Some gunshot detection systems have simulation and training modes
that will activate the sequence of information flow, including integrated
actions within video, mass notification, access control, etc., without
needing to present a weapon into the environment. Similar to fire alarm
drills, a simulated active shooter drill can help organizations initiate a
calmer, more organized, less traumatic training experience.
For all the benefits gunshot detection can bring to a campus environment,
the difficulty with system selection is that at this time there is
no one governing body that regulates the industry or monitors marketing
claims. An important resource any campus operator should look
for is the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFETY Act program.
Seek technologies that have been SAFETY Act Certified and bear the
red Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seal of approval.
This indicates that the technology is listed on the DHS Approved
Products List for Homeland Security and has been vetted by the DHS
Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), a DHS arm that monitors
emerging threats and encourages private industry to create technology
solutions to abate them. On the other hand, a product bearing a
green or blue mark will have only a Developmental Testing and Evaluation
Designation (DT&E), indicating that the technology is still in
the development and testing phase. Additional best practices include
involving your security integrator early in the process and asking the
manufacturer for customer references.
Gunshot detection becomes the starting point of response by
immediately bringing situational awareness to the forefront, providing
clarity over confusion. Gunshot detection will improve your overall
security posture and strengthen your response to active shooter
incidents and could potentially boost recruitment efforts for parents
and students that place a high value on campus security in the selection
process. Focus on finding a system that uses multiple modes of
detection, has a high rate of detection accuracy, fast alerting speed,
flexible integration capabilities, and devices that use secure communications
and are safe to use on your network.
Equally important is a system that can be integrated seamlessly
with your existing video and emergency notification systems, and one
that enhances your active shooter training. This is where true automation
happens and where gunshot detection can have the most
impact on reducing the loss of life during active shooter incidents.
This article originally appeared in the May / June 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.