It was early afternoon in Boston when an off-duty security guard heard screaming in a clinic he was visiting in New England. Immediately responding, he found a man, Jay Carciero, repeatedly stabbing a female physician who was laying on the ground. The by-stander drew his licensed firearm and ordered the man to stop. When the assailant allegedly lunged at the guard, he fired at Carciero twice and killed him. It was extremely fortunate for the doctor that an armed and trained citizen was present and able to intervene, no doubt saving her life. 

However, it is no question that this was not the clinic’s planned response for security threats. For institutions such as our social services, health care and government agencies, assaults against workers are an all too common reality. Unfortunately, there will be a likely increase of these incidents with the ever-going demand for services coming from a more desperate population. With the scarcity of job opportunities, the increase stress on workers and the pervasive issue of domestic violence, the threat of workplace violence is a looming risk for every employee and employer. Therefore, it is vital that every workplace have systems in place to protect employees.

As with the assaulted physician, a leading risk factor for violence is the the single and isolated worker.Simply put, employees are more likely to be assaulted when they are alone. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s report on Violence in the Workplace, working alone was specifically recognized as a risk factor.

Why is working alone so dangerous? One point is that perpetrators are emboldened to be more aggressive. When there are neither witnesses to their actions nor any immediate backup, they feel free to behave inappropriately or even intimidating. Aware of their own vulnerability, the lone worker’s visible fear may even encourage the perpetrator’s behavior.

How can an employee working alone inform others that they need assistance without making the situation worse? A central fear is tipping off the offender, possibly instigating an assault. By overtly summoning support, a desperate act could occur before reinforcements arrive to save the victim. Additionally, asking for help may be seen as a sign of weakness and the power play between victim and perpetrator deepens. 

Panic buttons, duress signals or personal security alarms have been commonly used to provide a way to quickly and discreetly summon support. This warning communication tool has long been used in retail and banking industries in response to robberies but they have also made their way into corporate offices, government programs and community services agencies.

Duress Signal Alarms Evolve

The early, basic, hard-wired alarm was a single button that sets off a signal or alarm in another room, typically to a supervisor’s or security office. While certainly “better than nothing,” the manner in which it is installed denotes its limitations. Not only can the installation be disruptive with mounting buttons onto desks and walls, drilling holes and laying the wire under carpets or through the ceiling, the button is locked to that position. 

The next generation uses more advanced systems utilizing radio signals or phone lines to relay the message to designated recipients, allowing for more installation and receiver options. A useful aspect of this application is that some user devices are portable in the form of a handheld unit or worn on a lanyard. Activation would not only alert security but may also locate the distressed individual.

But as the second generation of panic buttons can come on a hand-held device, the receivers needed the same degree of mobility. A signal may flash in a security office but if no one is in the room, the message would not be heard. Ideally, the messages needed to be sent to multiple recipients to ensure delivery, including to mobile devices. Many systems are able to send the distress message an alarm in the security room and simultaneously to a roaming guard’s radio.

There is a need for choice in message options. One button can make a simple request from a nearby co-worker to provide support with an angry client while another button can be for more urgent cases, going to security for a stronger response or to call the police. In response, the responders can get more information about the incident to prepare them for what they may encounter.

Moreover, these alarm messages need to be easily created and edited to fit unique, emerging threats. When a specific danger has been identified (such as an ex-employee vowing revenge), a response plan specific to that threat, target and workspace should be developed. While a workplace shooting is rare in general, the chances of such an occurrence have multiplied in these circumstances. As a serious threat can emerge quite suddenly, it may take days for a hardwire, radio or phone line system to be installed before it is fully operational. That is why the panic alarms must be able to be easily and quickly implemented and customized to prepare for each particular situation.

However, the focus on addressing the perpetrator does not cover the entire response plan. Case scenarios have demonstrated that security is not the only parties that need to be notified during an emergency as different positions need to be informed in order to take appropriate actions.

If a shooting should occur, the immediate involvement of upper management is required. In the age of instant information, the media, law enforcement agencies and family members of employees will be arriving and effective crisis management is necessary to prevent an incident from becoming a public relations debacle. During an emergency that can have long lasting implications on the reputation, potential civil suits and viability of a company, C-level executives want to know about the situation as soon as possible.

Unrelated to the emergency response, there is another reason to keep executives and managers informed of even non-critical incidents. Management needs to be aware of the everyday threats that their employees face. While there may be an annual meeting with summary reports of security incidents, a single pie chart does not have the same impact as receiving real time notices when these events occur. While management may not need to follow day to day operations, their concerns about liability may warrant their interest when security incidents arise.

So far, the focus has been on the alarm system providing communication from a threatened sender to a receiving party or parties. After the button is pressed, the threatened worker has no way to know if the message was actually read or acknowledged.

Perhaps the most important feature of any panic alarm system is reliability. It is essential that a system that is used to protect staff from harm will work when activated. Drills are useful to not only test the equipment but to actually practice the appropriate response. However, every piece of equipment or machinery is vulnerable to failure and the testing cannot wait for the annual or even quarterly drill. 

Therefore, a regular and an automated means to test the program systematically is a prudent aspect of any safety system.

Based on our experience, the evolution of panic alarms has proven its worth in the reduction of assault and improving the employee’s sense of security. However, most current systems require the installation of new equipment by the vendor technician, may involve a contracted subscription service and is limited in the message capabilities. Alternatively, a third generation of panic alarms is emerging that is affordable, can be implemented quickly using the organization’s current infrastructure and is adaptable to the company’s unique profile and situation.

The Next Generation of Panic Alarms

The advent of this new generation of panic buttons addresses or overcomes many of the deficiencies of the previous two generation of alert systems. The PC based duress alarm or electronic panic button is a new kind of alarm system with the ability for workers to summon support quickly and discreetly through their personal computer. An attractive aspect is that they usually only take minutes to install and configure by the IT personnel.

As with traditional panic alarms, it addresses the risk factors mentioned above by providing a subtle way to summon support but in addition, can now send a series of customizable messages to different recipients, all with a single click.

Integrating into the Future

Imagine a front desk receptionist that is hassled by a visitor. With a click, not only is security notified but a live video stream pops up on their monitor of the incident in real time. Similar to the trigger alarms from the integration of access control and IP video surveillance, duress notification can not only give security a direct view of the most pressing concern but the auto-capture of the video can provide clear evidence in any disputes in investigation or following legal cases. With the addition of connection with a Central Monitoring Station, a video feed can provide the monitor additional information as to validity of the notification and can reduce the number of false alarms. 

But the integration into access control systems allow for even more options for security protocols. A breach in access or perimeter can send emergency messages and instructions to all staff through pop up alerts. Conversely, front desk personal and other trained personnel have the option to initiate lockdown procedures.

In this review of the evolution of panic buttons, we can see how they can serve as an important intervention tool to secure staff. While it has been commonly used for robbery response, it can now be used preventively to reduce the escalation of hostile encounters, warn staff and keep administers informed. By incorporating the versatile software generation of panic buttons, security directors will have greater control, faster implementation and better reporting in the use of such technology. In addition, self testing features enable the program to immediately notify administrators when the communication relays are not functioning. The future has many opportunities as the video monitoring and entry control technologies are integrating into a single IP platform as well. While the threat of violence is a persistent threat, companies and agencies can benefit from recent developments in panic alarm duress systems for a more robust, adaptable and unified security system.