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New Washington, Ohio -- Chief of Police Scott Robertson talks with fourth grade students as they huddle in closet a during a lockdown drill at the St. Bernard School.

A Smarter School Lockdown

The Internet of Things and a new app makes teachers into first responders.

Since the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., American schools have participated in an average of more than two dozen lockdowns a day. In neighboring Massachusetts, schools have responded with a three-pronged attack of gun control legislation, teacher training, and security technology.

Case in point: Weymouth, Massachusetts-based ELERTS built a system that allows teachers trapped in a volatile situation to use “Internet of Things” technology to keep their students safe. They can lock down a facility and cut off key card access with the click of a button while sending and receiving communication to other faculty and arriving police—all from a smartphone app.

The ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training program to educate the educators.

Teachers Become Responders

The tech is a manifestation of a larger new consensus: that active shooter situations are often over before police can arrive. “When in a lockdown situation, which can go on for hours, up until now information from the outside isn’t getting into the classrooms,” says ELERTS CEO Ed English.

Before new national guidelines were released in June 2013, protocol for teachers used to be simpler: Lock the classroom doors, turn off the lights, and hide until police arrived. Today the response includes “Run, Hide, or Fight,” and encourages staff and students to use one or more options based on their own judgment.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick recently announced new school safety guidelines in all Massachusetts Schools that suggest “each school should have a system for school staff to communicate with each other as well as first responders during an incident.” The guidelines push schools to consider using smartphones because they ”cannot always depend on the school’s public address or internal phone system.”

That moment of decision is when the ELERTS Lock-It-Down system is designed to come into play, allowing designated staff to initiate the lockdown of a facility. Access to this kind of security tech isn’t just handed out to teachers: that’s why ELERTS partners with the ALICE Training institute.

The idea behind ALICE—which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate and which is used in school districts and law enforcement agencies across the country—is to educate the educators.

A teacher or students inside a locked down building is “really the first responder,” says Frank Griffith, ALICE Training Institute’s executive vice president. Griffith says that when a teacher has been prepped to think about their options it increases their chances of survival. All of this follows new national guidelines released for school safety in 2013 in response to the Newtown shootings.

Though shootings can be over in minutes, lockdowns often go on for hours, and the ELERTS system can help teachers better navigate that often traumatizing time.

Students taking part in ALICE training

Teachers Can Broadcast While Police Are On Their Way

English says the national average is 10 minutes for police response time to get to an urban school setting. In a shooter situation, teachers with information, “can quickly type it in, take a picture, and hit Send. And it can auto-broadcast to teachers in other parts of the school and police,” English says.

“The local police department can start participating immediately,” English says, instead of when they arrive.

Through the app they developed (in a partnership with Tyco Security Products), ELERTS also allows teachers to disable all swipe cards except for local law enforcement. The system brings up a Google map that allows a school administrator to define a field of view for each camera outside the facility. “When a person is in the perimeter of the threat camera we use the GPS on the phone to see where the person is,” English explains.

It’s important to note that ELERTS and ALICE Training are about preparation, not prevention. Griffith says the concept of prevention is just not something his company talks about too much because you can’t prevent an active shooter situation from happening. They’re just trying to improve the status quo, which English says really needs improvement.

“It’s a matter of reducing risk,” he says. “It’s nearly impossible to say with a hundred percent certainty that there’s any building that can’t be breached.”

Nor is hacking a school security system like ELERTS unimaginable, though English says that would be an extremely remote possibility. “Our data is all encrypted, we don’t make it easy for someone to get access to it,” he adds. (Wired.com recently reported that last year a hacker proved he could take control of “highly automated” hotel rooms in a five-star hotel in Shenzhen, China.)

Building on he company's "See Something, Say Something" app developed for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and adopted by several major cities in the U.S., ELERTS developed a product which allows school and corporate campuses to use the same functionality — ELERTS Campus. Modifications to that product led to the development of ELERTS Lock-It-Down solution. In all, ELERTS school safety apps are in use in dozens of schools and colleges in several states and will soon launch in Puerto Rico.

[Photo by AP Photo, Craig Ruttle, File, Corbis Images]

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5 Comments

  • Carolyn Fitzpatrick

    I'm a US teacher - and this plan is impractical. Unless you want your phone to be stolen off your hip, it needs to be locked up with your purse in a desk drawer. If students or somebody else does manage to steal a teacher's phone, what a mess that would cause! What about teachers who DON'T have smartphones (like me) because we can't afford them? Will the district be providing them to us for free? Why not just fix the stupid intercom buttons that are already in every classroom and never seem to work?

  • steve_e_2k7

    And still nobody has considered banning guns in America? How much more money will they spend fire-fighting this problem..

  • Giving teachers a way to remotely lock classroom doors is paramount, so they don't have to approach a door or go into a hallway in a potentially dangerous situation. But using a smartphone app still requires time and fine motor skills that are often in short supply during an emergency situation.

    Lock-maker Schlage, makes a key fob that teachers can wear like a necklace and remotely lock down a classroom with the push of a single button. The CO-220 lock also features a clear display that indicates when the lock is engaged, so first responders can easily see which rooms are locked and secure.

    http://us.allegion.com/Products/electronic_locks/standalone/costandalonelocks/co220/Pages/default.aspx

    These products are proven and tested since they already being used in schools. If I were a school administrator I'd want to see a whole lot of testing before relying on an app to protect students.

  • allansaunders

    Chris, You really should identify yourself as the Communications and Media Relations manager for Schlage's parent company, Allegion, when pitching your products.
    I'm not sure Fast Company intended this article to be a way for your to obtain free advertising in such a covert way....

  • Using the smartphone that is already familiar to the teachers makes more sense. There is no extra gear to buy and no one ever forgets to bring their smartphone. We carry them with us in the playground, lunchroom, parking lot and classroom. They work wherever there is cellular or wifi signals. And they are location aware, with GPS maps. Smartphones are very capable as emergency communication devices. Dealing with a school threat is about much more than simply locking the doors. With any teacher or other staff member able to transmit photos, maps and descriptions of what they see to others and police, situational awareness is achieved. Modern protocols promote using situational response to a violent school threat. But situational response requires knowing what the situation is.