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Panic Button App Allows Silent Communication

July 2014
By Becky Lewis

Whether the intruder smiled and talked his way past the front office staff, or somehow got in undetected through a side door, he didn’t know. What he did know when he heard the shots from the classroom across the hall, was that he needed to get the small children under his care into a closet and quietly out of sight. However, while maintaining complete silence, he pulled his smartphone from his pocket and activated the panic button app downloaded just last month at the school system’s direction. Just activating it instantly let 911 dispatch know that the second-grade teacher in Room A17 had sent an emergency alert. In seconds, officers raced toward the school, accessing a map in route that showed them the nearest entrance to the classroom and other physical details that shaved important seconds off their response time.

The mobile panic button app implemented by the town of Milford, Mass., earlier in 2014 can provide all that information and more. Based on “Smart911” technology, it routes cellular calls to the Milford Police Department while also instantly delivering critical information that can be used to facilitate a faster, more effective response. The mobile panic button directly integrates into the 911 call taking process, a best practice as highlighted by the National Emergency Number Association. By using the mobile panic button, the school system has the ability to upload a detailed profile that can include details such as class rosters, emergency contact details and the most direct route to a specific classroom. It allows for two-way communication if the caller can speak, but even when silence is essential, still provides dispatch and first responders with a wealth of critical information via the detailed uploaded profile and the ability to communicate via text messaging.

“I like the idea that our teachers have access to emergency services without needing to use their voices,” says Milford Superintendent Bob Tremblay. “You hope that you never need to call 911, but if, God forbid, we ever have a lockdown, the fact that we will have the ability to share information about the caller and the school without saying a word could save precious time. We learned from Newtown that getting detailed information to the right people in the shortest amount of time may not avoid a tragedy, but it can minimize response time and that is vitally important.”

The school system has partnered with the police department to ensure that teachers in all of the town’s seven schools have downloaded the app, and plans to incorporate its use into training and drills planned for the system’s 500-plus faculty and staff members during the 2014-2015 school year. (Milford, located in Worcester County, has a population of approximately 28,000 residents, including 4,300 students.)

“We did some testing in the buildings to verify cellphone coverage,” Police Chief Tom O’Loughlin says. “Some communities are using panic buttons that connect to a security alarm system, but they can be susceptible to abuse if they’re fixed-mounted, and if they’re on a fob that people carry with them, they can be misplaced or lost. Consider the cost for having an electrician wire an entire school system, and it can become prohibitive. With this, costs are minimal and the calls go directly to 911.”

Tremblay says that he thinks the effort required to keep the information current also will be minimal since the system automatically reminds school officials to update the information every six months to ensure information accuracy.

“When you’re under stress, you may forget the obvious things, such as the room number or the nearest entrance. In addition to the information uploaded into the profile, we have a red dot in every classroom that includes the name of the school, the room number, and the nearest exterior door. This could be critical, especially for roving instructors or substitute teachers,” Tremblay says. In another school safety measure, the Milford Police Department has also placed older, unused portable radio units throughout the schools. Administrators and teachers who take students outside can use them to talk to the police department and to each other.

“Bob Tremblay and our school system are very progressive, and school security is at the top of my department’s list,” O’Loughlin says. “There is nothing more important than protecting our schools.”

For more information on Milford’s use of the mobile panic button, contact Chief Tom O’Loughlin at [email protected] or Superintendent Bob Tremblay at [email protected]