As school shootings continue to plague American communities, both large and small, school administrators and security experts need to look at the issue of minimizing risk from multiple angles. One of the most important issues is how to help or enable local law enforcement to respond as quickly as possible. This is the purpose of duress alarm systems, more commonly known as panic alarms.
With a proliferation of vendors and systems in recent years, school administrators and security directors may justifiably feel overwhelmed by the choices. The decision, however, is easier than it may appear.
The most important differentiation among panic alarm systems currently available is who they notify: responders directly or emergency dispatchers or a third-party call center. This makes the choice much easier. Since the difference of even 30-60 seconds in response time can make the difference between lives saved and lives lost, direct-to-responders (D2R) systems win the competition, hands down.
D2R systems are not mass notification systems. They do not notify a broad group of people, such as parents or students, of the occurrence of an emergency. Instead, they broadcast alarms over the two-way radios carried by law enforcement officers and other first responders. Police, emergency management and other responding agencies are generally willing to accept direct alarm messages for major incidents from schools.
The alarm messages are pre-recorded and contain details of the location of the emergency just as if a person had called 911 and was clearly and concisely relating the address of the incident. This message is broadcast as soon as a panic button is pushed. The initial dispatch of first responders is automated. This enables law enforcement to respond to major incidents without any delay.
Systems that combine radio alarm broadcasts with other methods of delivery such as emails, text messages and telephone calls provide the most flexibility. First responders may be notified by radio while other personnel, such as teachers and administrators, are notified by emails or text messages. This enables staff to be aware of the incident immediately so that they can take appropriate action.
Many conventional systems – not D2R – send alarms to a central console or dispatch center. The alarm will pop up on a screen usually accompanied by an audible alert tone. Sometimes the system identifies the precise location of the emergency. Sometimes it just indicates the alarm by zone name or number.
The screen on which alarms appear must be monitored at all times in order to ensure that no alarms are missed or response delayed. Assigning someone to be responsible for monitoring the system is a major concern with this kind of alarm delivery. That is why many conventional systems rely on third-party monitoring companies.
This resolves the issue of having to assign someone to watch the console, but it also adds an ongoing cost to the system. More importantly, this kind of system slows response times dramatically by inserting an additional layer between the emergency and the first responders. A delay of even one minute at the start of an incident can have a dramatic impact on its outcome.
Monitored systems were developed to address the needs of law enforcement to minimize the number of false alarms to which they respond. They are most appropriate for residential burglar alarms which may be set off inadvertently. The monitoring company calls the owner to verify the alarm prior to calling the police to respond.
When seconds count during a major incident at a school, however, reliance on a system that makes a telephone call to a monitoring station, which then calls the school office to verify the alarm before calling the police, is not optimal.
D2R systems provide schools with a fast and effective way to call for help when a major incident occurs. While panic buttons with a direct link to law enforcement should be used only in the case of major incidents, this type of notification system can also be used within the school to provide a way to call for help when a medical emergency or other problem arises, especially in remote areas.
Panic buttons also can be configured to contact the front office or medical personnel within the school. These buttons can be placed throughout the campus so that personnel have easy access to assistance should an emergency arise. For instance, panic buttons can be placed on sports fields or carried by teachers on the playground.
“Virtual buttons,” which are icons on computer screens within the school’s local area network, are also available on some notification systems. Virtual buttons can be activated by a click of the mouse to summon help in an emergency.
D2R systems often can be integrated with your other security equipment. Alarms from access control systems, burglar alarms and security video systems can be passed through the notification system to generate audible alarms or emails.
Many notification systems also have other sensors available in addition to panic buttons. For instance, tilt sensors or motion detectors can be used to notify staff of unauthorized access in an area after hours or that projectors, screens or other equipment are being moved.
Both hard-wired and wireless panic alarm systems are available. Hard-wired systems are more expensive to install due to the expense of wiring. This may limit the number and location of buttons that a school can afford. In addition, future expansion or changes to the system may be expensive because every change means that the system must be re-wired.
Wireless technology has improved dramatically over the last decade to the point where wireless systems are a reliable and robust alternative to hard-wired systems. Wireless systems are easier to expand or change as a school’s needs evolve.
It is important to ensure that the buttons used by wireless systems are self-monitored. This means that the system communicates with each of the buttons every few minutes to ensure functionality. If there are any problems, such as a low battery or missing button, the system should notify administrators.
While most systems can be expanded after they have been installed, there may be a high price attached to this. Hard-wired systems may require additional trenching or running wires to new locations. Wireless systems tend to be easier and less costly to expand. There may be hefty additional fees, however, to pay for adding zones or message capacity to a wireless system. It is important to investigate different systems and the options available for future expansion carefully before making a purchasing decision.
Another consideration is whether a self-contained system or a server-based system would be most appropriate. Server-based systems require a dedicated server to be maintained by the IT department. They generally require some kind of network connection to function and may stop working if there is a power failure or network outage. There is often an annual software maintenance fee associated with server based systems.
Self-contained systems do not require a network connection to transmit radio alarms, although they may need a network connection for virtual buttons or to send emails and text messages. Self-contained systems usually have a battery back-up so that they can continue to function temporarily even if there is an interruption to the power supply.
The bottom line is that duress alarm systems have come a long way from hard-wired buttons and monitoring companies. D2R systems can provide an effective means for alerting first responders when a critical emergency arises and seconds count.