For over 100 years, schools have been practicing fire drills in an effort to keep their staff and students safe. In fact, some students may practice more than 72 fire drills throughout their grade school career. With the hope of ingraining what to do in the case of an emergency without students having to think twice, the repetition is working. But what if you line up in a single fire line and head straight into unknown danger? Then a well-rehearsed plan may be for nothing.

 With the advancement of technology and the changes in threats to our schools, the fire drill is no longer the best way to practice emergency preparedness. No matter how many times a fire drill is practiced, it won’t be helpful if the situation doesn’t go exactly as expected. For instance, when a fire alarm is pulled, that doesn’t always mean a fire is taking place, but the school population has no way of knowing this. Due to the protocol, they will carry out what they have practiced during fire drills. For many scenarios, this is not ideal and can even be dangerous. If an intruder pulls a fire alarm, this can lead to students and staff flooding the hallways, which is the exact opposite of what a school would want to happen in this situation. More schools are seeing fire alarms being used as a means of communication for emergencies beyond a fire. In fact, we’ve seen active shooters use fire alarms to lure the masses to open gun fire in shootings like Parkland, among others.  

 Instead of focusing on fire drills, schools should focus on increasing situational awareness in and around their buildings so they can make informed decisions during any emergency. The best way to prepare for an emergency, whether it’s a fire, intruder, inclement weather or anything else is to create the ability to communicate and disperse information as quickly as possible to all involved. Through a situational awareness-based approach to emergencies, principals, teachers and other onsite and even offsite personnel can receive real-time information about a possible threat and initiate the appropriate response plan. To do this, schools must implement a technology system that can quickly collect and deliver information, such as an automated alerting platform. 

 An automated alerting platform can be used to integrate a school’s existing individual technology systems together. Schools often already have certain technologies such as a PA system, phones, door access control, cameras, a fire panel and more, but they all work separately and therefore are unable to communicate with each other. However, when these systems are all connected with a single platform, they can improve their functionality. For example, the automated alerting platform would monitor all of these systems, so, if a fire alarm was triggered, the alerting platform could pull the live video feed from the camera(s) nearest to the alarm and then send an alert to the proper people, such as the principal, maintenance staff and even directly to the fire department. 

 By leveraging an automated alerting platform, schools can use many of their technologies proactively rather than reactively. Cameras in a school are often only utilized after an incident has already occurred, but by pulling live surveillance feeds during an emergency, the cameras can be utilized in the moment, so first responders, staff and students can make informed decisions on how to react appropriately. For instance, if you can see who pulled the fire alarm and where, you can direct staff and students to avoid certain exits or areas of the school when evacuating. Or, if the person who pulled the alarm is an intruder or dangerous, people can be instructed to instead lockdown or not proceed with an evacuation. 

 Drills aren’t a thing of the past, but today, it’s no longer efficient or effective to fully rely on practicing drills as a safety precaution. This means schools need to implement a holistic safety solution that is flexible, customizable and ready to be utilized at any moment.

This article originally ran in Security, a twice-monthly security-focused eNewsletter for security end users, brought to you by Security magazine. Subscribe here.