Reading, ’riting, and readiness: Today’s schools have to focus on safety and security issues as well as education. School facilities managers are often challenged to create an open educational environment that is closed to intruders and other dangers. By identifying best practices and emerging technology, school professionals are creating safer facilities and achieving greater efficiencies.
All-hazard Approach Promotes Best Practices
“Sometimes security is on one track and fire-safety issues are on another track, sometimes they contradict each other or take away resources, so we are trying to make this an all-hazard approach to solving their security problems,” says Don Bliss, director, Center for Infrastructure Expertise, National Infrastructure Center, Portsmouth, NH. The center – a not-for-profit, federally funded applied research group – is dedicated to helping state and local governments and industry find better solutions to protect their critical infrastructure from a homeland security and natural hazards perspective.
A retired state fire marshal in New Hampshire and former president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, Bliss has a long history working with schools and colleges on fire prevention, fire code enforcement, and public education, as well as fire investigations. According to Bliss, while schools are generally good about holding fire drills, more than 5,000 fires in U.S. schools are reported annually. In addition to dealing with these issues, school officials are struggling to make their buildings more secure from criminals with video cameras, metal detectors, and access control systems.
School overcrowding is another safety issue, with some schools using storage rooms and temporary buildings as classroom space. “Another challenge is that many states are doing a lot of additions, renovations, and new construction and [want to ensure] these buildings are safe, especially when school districts are looking to build at the lowest possible costs,” says Bliss.
In New Hampshire, all renovations and capital construction are reviewed by the State Fire Marshal office. Bliss stresses the importance of school districts, architects, and engineers working with fire officials early in the construction process. He also encourages K-12 school facilities managers to collaborate with fire departments for annual inspections.
The college environment presents a different range of behaviors and dangers, including smoking, drug and alcohol use, overused electrical outlets, and substandard off-campus housing. In New Hampshire, all of the state’s university system dormitories are protected by sprinklers through voluntary compliance. “Obviously, whenever there is a disaster, interest peaks for a while, but then it drops off,” says Bliss. An advocate of sprinklers in dorms, Bliss knows it is a struggle to keep life-safety a priority.
The Center for Infrastructure Expertise and state fire marshals are collaborating to find new technologies and best practices for schools. With a recent grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the center has launched 10 pilot sites and has created partnerships with security manufacturers and other associations.
Beta Sites Test Effectiveness of Information
“Security has gone from worrying about kids fighting each other, to worrying about people coming on campus who do not belong there, to armed issues,” says Stan Rounds, superintendent of schools, Hobbs Municipal Schools, Hobbs, MN. With 22 years of experience as a superintendent, Rounds has seen the tremendous changes in school security. Serving 7,500 students, the Hobbs school district is comprised of 50 buildings in a “big small town” environment.
“What we have been looking for is a good, comprehensive way to communicate with our parents, our community, our law enforcement. We want to deliver information in real-time that is clear and fully correct,” says Rounds. The school district is serving as a beta test site for Honeywell Instant Alert for Schools, an automated emergency notification and communication system from Morris Township, NJ-based Honeywell.
In the past, the school relied on the old familiar telephone tree, which was time-consuming and faulty. Now in the event of an incidence, the school can send information to parents’ phones, pagers, and e-mail accounts, as well as to the community at large. “This creates a safer environment for the students and an informed environment for the public,” says Rounds. The U.S. Department of Education has specified that an emergency communication system should be part of every school’s crisis planning.
Parents in the Hobbs district have the option to participate in the testing. “Parents have total control – parents go into the website and rank [the] order of types of information [they] want to receive and in which medium,” says Laura Farnham, vice president, global marketing, Honeywell Building Solutions, Minneapolis.
Currently, four schools in Virginia, California, Indiana, and New Mexico are involved in beta testing the communications system. Farnham believes the system has potential beyond emergencies and could be an important tool in keeping parents informed, as opposed to newsletters in backpacks. Adds Farnham, “We discovered that once you have the infrastructure in place, it can be used for daily communication. We are finding it is a great starting point in talking about preparedness.”
Chips Control/Track Access
The bucolic campus of Thomas College, Waterville, ME, has been the image of peace and quiet for over 100 years. Focusing on business, education, and technology majors, the college has ramped up its security in recent years in response to students’ and parents’ concerns. “[The concern] has evolved over time. Students and parents alike have asked more and more about the types of security we have, especially in our residence halls,” says Christopher Rhoda, vice president, IT Serv-ices, at Thomas College.
Traditionally, this small, rural campus did not have a standardized student ID card system. However, Thomas College has seen great growth and recently added a new residence hall, expanding its residence capacity by 30 percent. The college implemented a student ID card with an embedded chip from Honeywell. Now, the school can control access to facilities as well as areas inside buildings, such as computer labs or suites. Adds Rhoda, “We are able to segment buildings and define different areas.”
“The tracking portion has really been the best,” says Rhoda. A few months ago, a large and bulky change machine was stolen from one of the residence halls. “This thing is four feet high by three feet wide by two feet deep and weighs a ton. The fact that it walked off was no small feat,” jokes Rhoda. By investigating its door log, the college was able to nab the culprits.
Pleased with its recent success, Thomas College plans to expand its security outlook and to continue to provide its students with a feeling of safety. “One of the things I saw in the 18 years I have been involved with security is that an improperly installed security system can change the entire culture of a business or a school,” says Greg Taylor, security solutions program manager, Global Marketing and Business Development, Honeywell Building Solutions, Toronto, ON, Canada.
According to Taylor, a well-designed and implemented security system creates an open, yet safe, environment. For example, with a properly designed video system, schools can track buses and students’ access and egress. This gives parents an estimated time of arrival for students when it is necessary to investigate incidents.
The approach to safety in educational facilities has turned a new page. Instead of assuming a sense of security, schools, large and small, are making safety concerns an integral part of the educational mission. The eight leading causes of child injury are preventable. To promote safety, the Quincy, MA-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has created an age-appropriate Injury Prevention Curriculum known as RiskWatch that integrates safety training into other subject areas, such as science or physical education. This change in thinking is leading to a truly safe haven for the future of education.
Regina Raiford Babcock (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.
After the tragedy ...
By Scott Gardiner
For most schools, reports of campus shootings seem a distant nightmare. Sadly, that nightmare became a reality at Grossmont Union School District, an 11-high school system with 24,000 students in San Diego County. In 2001, two separate shooting incidents happened back-to-back over a two-week period. Immediately, Grossmont searched for an effective, economical way to protect its campuses.
Grossmont became the initial reference site for the e-Surveillance system from Park Ridge, NJ-based Sony, which allows administrators and law enforcement officers to act on emergency situations in real-time with digital video surveillance over TCP/IP networks. Running on a Cisco infrastructure, this solution consists of fixed and pan/tilt/zoom IP addressable cameras with built-in Web servers and Ethernet ports, Sony Real Shot™ camera recording and video management software, and network-attached servers for storage and archival retrieval.
For this pilot project, Warren Williams, assistant superintendent for information and technology services at Grossmont, outfitted two of the district’s campuses with the e-Surveillance system. Now, JPEG data files can be accessed, monitored, recorded, and printed anywhere on the network by authorized personnel – crucial advantages during emergency situations or to help reconstruct events from archived material.
In just a few months, Williams saw far greater applications and opportunities than originally imagined. Besides fostering a safe learning environment for the district’s students, Grossmont school district now reports that vandalism and inappropriate use of school facilities and resources have dropped significantly. Cost savings from maintaining the physical plant, along with insurance reductions, have been some of the unexpected returns.
Before the incidents at Grossmont, local police patrol covered different schools. “We understood that if we had been able to see the problem developing – people on the campus that shouldn’t be – perhaps we could have done something,” Williams explains. The new system delivers visual information wherever and whenever needed in real-time. The system’s true utility begins with the automated ability to communicate alarm events. Motion sensor-equipped cameras, as well as other triggering criteria (e.g. access control), signal school officials on call. Then, authorized personnel can take control of the cameras to investigate the situation immediately from any networked computer. Wireless capabilities allow police patrol cars with laptop and/or handheld computers to continue to keep an eye on events while responding to the scene. All the while, the system records images on the secure, RAID redundant server.
“We can program the system to respond to alarm events numerous ways. It can send e-mail or call a cell phone,” Williams notes. Besides security functions, an additional camera can webcast sporting events at the school stadium. In time, the system may be used for educational purposes as well. Adding cameras to classrooms will let experienced teachers demonstrate best practices to their colleagues or help in confronting students with discipline issues.
Video information via wireless can be transmitted both to cruisers with laptops and to foot patrols with handheld computers. Police are confident that the new tools will give them what they need to address any future situation.
“The system is essentially maintenance-free and training staff to use it is simple,” says Williams. The new system is expected to lower future staffing costs. The school district is also renegotiating with its insurance underwriters to reflect the changes brought by the new security system. “We’re a safer place now. The insurance savings will likely be significant enough to justify costs,” Williams adds.
Typically, according to Williams, the introduction of a pilot system is followed by lengthy analysis and evaluation. Here, the system’s success in providing security, plus the many value-adds, has immediately won over the district’s governing board.
The arrival of the Sony e-Surveillance system at the Grossmont School District closes one chapter in the institution’s history while opening a new one. Now, its demonstrable value has restored confidence and will continue to provide the sense of security essential to maintaining a healthy learning environment.
Scott Gardiner is an associate with Sony Electronics’ Corporate Communications Department, Park Ridge, NJ. More information on security systems offered through Sony is available at (www.sony.com/security).