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Ref: School system to install 'panic buttons' for emergency response

Phoenix online

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Montco schools 'panic button' demonstrated


By: MARGARET GIBBONS
01/25/2007
NORRISTOWN - Technology may one day save the life of a Montgomery County school student.
Some 75 members of the county's public safety community and school systems Wednesday were on hand at the courthouse to witness a demonstration of the panic-button system that the county intends to install in each of the county's approximate 650 public, private and parochial schools, day-care centers and nurseries.

The panic-button system essentially will tap into the county's 911 system, allowing, without human intervention, for the immediate dispatch of emergency personnel to a school.

Protecting school children is a major concern of police chiefs throughout the county, according to Lower Merion Police Superintendent Joseph J. Daly.

"Right now, no such alert system exists," Daly said. "Right now as I stand here, I have no way of knowing if something is going on at a school. Even just getting an alert telling me that something is going on at a school is 100 percent more information than I possess right now."

"This system will not protect our children absolutely, but this is a quantum leap for us in protecting those children," Daly said.

Daly's comments came at the conclusion of a brief, real-time demonstration of the system that included alerts going out instantly to reporters' cell phones.

The Community Law Enforcement Alerting System (CLASS), which will be engineered and put in place by the Texas-based Micro Technology Services Inc. of Texas, will be tested in 20 schools this spring, including Springfield High School.

That school requested to be one of the test schools following an incident last December when a high school junior brought a gun into the school, firing five shots into a corridor ceiling and wall before taking his own life with a sixth shot.

"This is not a panacea," said Commissioners Chairman Thomas J. Ellis, explaining that officials will never know whether a panic-button system would have prevented the Springfield incident.

"But what is important is that anything we can do as commissioners to improve the safety of our schools, to make sure our students are safe and that our parents feel safe sending them to school, we will do," Ellis said.

The county has budgeted up to $1 million for the project, which is scheduled to be operational when students head back to school in the fall of this year.

An advisory committee of school officials, police and public safety officials will develop protocols determining when the system should be used, who should have access to the wireless panic button, whether that button should use up to four buttons to designate the type of catastrophe, what type of icons should be included in a hard-wire computer in the school and other such information and procedures.

Some 60 percent of the facilities eligible for the program have already responded by filling out a questionnaire that included questions on the number of students, faculty, buildings and classrooms.

Information received from these contacts with the facilities has already generated valuable resources, according to county public safety officials.

For example, the county dispatch center now has some 60-school floor plans on file that can be sent to computers in police cars when they are responding to emergencies.

Also, some schools have their own closed circuit camera systems that can be connected to the county's system and, again, sent out to computers used by responders.

The county's panic-button system will be sufficiently flexible to incorporate all of this information to aid emergency responders when they arrive on the scene.

County public safety Director Tom Sullivan said he hopes to have wireless computers in 425 police cars within the next several months.

Initially skeptical of the system, county Solicitor Michael D. Marino, the county's former district attorney, now is calling CLASS and its inter-connectability with other county systems a "wonderful, wonderful" system.

"Allowing officers to see what is happening through closed-circuit cameras, this is just enormous, folks," said Marino.

©The Phoenix 2007

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