Connecting the District

Illinois schools set protocols for emergency situations

Sycamore School District in Illinois is comprised of seven schools ranging from elementary to secondary schools. The surrounding community is relatively small with a population of about 18,000 residents and children from nearby rural communities who also attend Sycamore Schools. At Sycamore, safety has been an important part of the schools' operations.

The local police department worked together with the district to set protocols for emergency situations that are comparable to other schools across the country. There are campus police officers dedicated to the schools, and there are specific lockdown procedures for an intrusion or child abduction type of emergency. Prior to 2014, Sycamore School District’s system relied heavily on people to provide the notification piece in the event of an emergency. If an intruder entered the premises, lockdown procedures included the principal notifying the entire school of the lockdown via PA.

Who is Responsible?

Another dedicated staff member, usually the principal’s secretary, was then responsible for calling the police. With the plan in place, lockdown drills were performed by the school district in collaboration with local police about twice per year (abiding by Illinois state law which requires a drill of at least once a year).

In 2014, the district set forth a plan to implement an automated security system as a way to enhance safety throughout the school district. While they already had an organized system in place, they were looking for a more reliable method to ensure widespread notification of a lockdown within the school and decided to explore some type of automation that would make sure police get notified without a person having to make the call themselves.

The goals were to alleviate some of the pressure placed on the principal, secretary and other individuals in an intense situation; reduce the chance for human error or delays in requesting police response; and empower the first person that sees danger to alert everyone else in the building as well as police. The district looked at a variety of security options and found that BluePoint Alert Solutions offered a Rapid Emergency Response System (RERS) that would meet the needs they were most concerned about, which were automation and immediate notification to those within the building (or just outside of it); immediate notification to the police; and compatibility with the existing infrastructure. To pay for the system, the school used a combination of matching grants that it had applied for, along with its own contribution.

After looking at options for improving the notification piece during a potential police emergency, it became evident that BluePoint Alert Systems would fit the district's needs. The system is automated, it helps accelerate response times, and it worked with existing infrastructure, which helped keep costs reasonable.”

With seven schools in the district, it may not have been possible to purchase a safety solution had it not been able to integrate with the existing PA system. Prior to purchasing it, Sycamore Schools also discussed BluePoint with the local police department, and they agreed that it was going to be the most ideal for meeting the school district’s security needs.

“The BluePoint system was absolutely necessary for a solid school safety plan within our local school district,” said Glenn Theriault, chief of police at Sycamore Police Department. “It is designed for urgent reaction to a problem and no matter where it occurs; the entire building is notified to take action immediately to help keep building occupants safe.”

The BluePoint systems are comprised of pull stations, interior strobes, exterior strobes and mobile devices for each of the seven schools. The table shows the breakdown of devices including:

 

How it Works

The pull stations look exactly alike and are as intuitive to use as fire pull stations, except they are blue. At Sycamore, if there was an intruder and someone activated the alarm, the system would issue three beeps to indicate that the system was activated. Next, a recorded voice would deliver a message throughout the school across the PA system. The blue strobe lights flash to make it clear to anyone who is not near the PA or who is outside the school that it is in lockdown mode. Sycamore previously had the principal as the designated person to make the live announcement so that the students would hear a familiar voice.

Depending on the situation and the location of the principal, this message may have been delayed while they got to the PA system and calmed down enough to speak clearly. With BluePoint, they were able to record the principal’s voice for the new system as well to avoid the stress and delays that could occur in an emergency situation. The recorded message plays repeatedly letting everyone know that the school is in lockdown and that help is on the way.

While notification of a lockdown is going on inside the school, the system is contacting police through its dispatch system. Theriault said police are able to determine which exact pull station was activated allowing them to enter the door closest to that point for faster response. The system fully covers the inside and outside of the school between the pull stations, mobile devices and strobe lights. If the system is activated, it will be clear to anyone on campus that there is a serious event taking place, including anyone outside the school—whether it is visitors or P.E. classes. The staff members who carry the mobile pendants are typically P.E. teachers, head custodians and other mobile staff.

The pull stations are smart devices, so no one has to worry about battery life. Thanks to the self-monitoring nature of the pull stations, data is reported back to the central monitoring station so the district doesn't have to do much on their end to maintain the system. It was also convenient and cost-effective that there was no need to hard-wire hundreds of pull stations, and that expedited the installation process.

BluePoint was instrumental in helping make sure the installation and set-up ran smoothly. Because the systems were wireless and installation was not highly invasive, like a hard-wired system, they did not have to wait until summer break to install it.

Training and False Alarms

The BluePoint system has been running at the first site of installation (the high school) since spring 2014, and the district continues to run drills two times a year. The drills have gone smoothly since installation.

One of the great features of BluePoint is that aside from teaching the staff when to activate the pull stations and mobile pendants—there were no changes to their security plan. They still go into lockdown—the process is almost exactly the same. The district has been able to save a lot of time and headaches not having to retrain people under a new system.

False alarms are always a concern, especially when anyone can activate a pull station. However, after one year and installations in seven schools there have only been two false alarms. One was an unintentional activation and the other was done on purpose by a student. The Sycamore School District worked with the police after each incident and used them as a learning opportunity to improve operations of their protocol.

“We have fire alarms in every school across the country, but I don’t know why we don’t have police alarms at every school. This technology can really fulfill this need at schools nationwide,” Theriault said. For Sycamore Schools, who have fortunately not had to use the system, the investment on the front end was worth it because it addressed the major concerns which were automation, immediate notification and integration with the existing PA system. In general, staff and students have indicated feeling more assured about the safety of Sycamore schools.

“We needed a system that will save lives in an emergency by allowing those in the impacted area to easily respond and get the necessary help needed in a fast manner,” Theriault said.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Security Today.

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