Communication Systems

Suppose gunfire breaks out between armed felons and the police from apartments across from your elementary school. What would you do, and how would you communicate with the many different parties who need to be kept informed?

This was a situation faced by the Clark County School District, Las Vegas, NV. The district, with 330 schools and more than 303,000 students, is the fifth largest in the nation. Before getting to the shootout, however, let’s first step back to get an overview of the district’s communication system.

Hector Garcia, chief of police of the district’s police department, explained that their system is tiered into different levels, depending upon the extent of the emergency. The top level of this system, which has been designed by the district itself, relates to national emergencies, the possibilities of which have come to the forefront in the wake of 9/11, is just completing implementation, and is called Datacasting.

“What we’re doing hasn’t been done before,” Garcia said.“It’s ground-breaking and exciting.” The key feature, Garcia explained, is broadcasting through the high definition bandwidth of its local public broadcasting system, Vegas PBS.“What makes this unique is that when many conventional forms of communication are down, the server at the public TV station can transmit data to the people in the field, police and public safety officials, to vehicles, throughout the schools, to everyone we want,” said Garcia.

A plan is in place — a blueprint, actually — which will allow all of the schools to communicate with each other, with public officials, parents, and anyone else for whom the communication is necessary. “It’s the most sophisticated, cutting edge technology,” Garcia said. “We received a $500,000 grant to do this as a pilot study, with the intention that this be a prototype that can be replicated in other schools.”

The second tier down, and similar in many ways to this national plan is a regional one for an encompassing regional area, such as Hurricane Katrina.

The next level down is the district level, which brings us to the violence impacting the schools. Here the best way to examine this level of the system is to see how it worked in the context of a potentially lethal emergency.

“Schools are microcosms, reflecting the society around it,” Garcia said. “Children and employees come to and from school but live in the surrounding society. Sometimes what happens in the outside world crosses over to the school.” This is what happened when the police were looking for three suspects, Garcia continued. The lockdown affected 11 schools, which began about 11 a.m., with no one let out until close to 6 p.m. The police had pursued the three felons to an apartment across the street from the elementary school. Two of them attempted to flee and were caught.

Then, the gunfire began. What the gunman did was blast holes in the walls to move from one apartment to another. He somehow got onto the roof of an adjoining apartment where he secured an advantageous position from which to fire on the police. Six hundred rounds were exchanged before he finally lost a duel with a sniper.

With all of the gunfire coming from the different apartments and two different buildings, Garcia said, “For all we knew there might have been 10 armed individuals there.” The shootout took place in a densely-populated, lower-income ethnic neighborhood. The other 10 schools had to be locked down because, even though they were in a radius of one half a mile to two miles away, many of the children had to walk through this neighborhood to get home.

Here, virtually every type of communication system was used — phones, cell phones, faxes, email, and the Internet Website, to keep the schools, police, officials, parents, TV and print media, and the community informed. A phone bank was set up to take incoming calls from parents or others if they did not have access to a Website.

In this instance, the police took over an abandoned gas station with an overhanging roof, which acted as a central communication base system. Many individual vehicles were equipped with at least five different types of communication modes, and representatives from administration, food service, transportation, and others traveled in these vehicles.

“Many decisions had to be made, from transportation for a partial dismissal to food for students who remained,” Garcia said. Within each school the administration could communicate to the individual classrooms, and the teacher could communicate back with questions. The teacher would also be able to get information from the outside through cell phones, Blackberries, or computers. “The better the information the teacher has, the better he is able to reassure his students,” said Garcia.

Since this gunfire incident, in which the only one harmed was the gunman, the district has upgraded the command center to a mobile home, outfitted with every type of communication device, including electronic maps, medical supplies, food, trained healthcare personnel, and psychologists, all of which can travel to wherever it or they can be of most use.

“The last thing that elected officials want is to be questioned about some emergency they are not aware of,” Garcia said. “So, for this reason, a special software sends urgent or coded messages directly to them via their Blackberries, email, or cell phone.”

Obviously, false alarms are better than the real thing, but even they can create problems. For example, a parent may hear of a lockdown and not know that the threat has already passed. Or, he or she may hear from a student that the school was locked down a few hours during the day due to some violent scare that didn’t materialize, but the parent is upset because he or she wasn’t informed. For this reason, the system has a special provision on the Website, so a parent can log on — in multiple languages. Finally, all messages that go out are approved by an administrator, and depending on the nature of the communication, they are programmed to go out to only selected individuals, such as school board members or public officials or, perhaps, to only the affected school(s) or parents of children.

Not all school districts are large, nor do all need the state-of-the-art technology to achieve a workable communication system. For instance, Colquitt County School System, in Moultrie, GA, has 13 schools, with about 8,400 students. Mickey Key, assistant superintendent for operations, reports that about two months ago, his district implemented the Crisis Communication System, from Macon, GA.

“Basically, it’s an automated dialing system,” Key explained. “Once we make a call to the central location, calls can go out by the thousands, by either phone or radio, and they can be segmented and targeted so the parties receiving them are just the ones we intend. This system is very basic, no bells or whistles, but is very effective.”

SchoolWorld, Fairport, NY, has come out with a new stand-alone system that is entirely Web-based. Deborah Bricker, director of project management, explained that the messages go seamlessly from the administration to the schools. Parents or others can sign up and receive information from anything from emergencies to school closings to sports events and homework. Parents or others in the community can sign up for various categories of information, and change them if they want. For those who don’t have email, the messages can go out to cell phones, or text messages on cell phones.

One user of this system is Frank Rizzo, director of Information Technology at East Aurora Union Free School District, in East Aurora, NY. Rizzo was in California during a freak 2006 snowstorm, known as the “October Surprise.” He was awakened in his hotel room by a midnight call from the superintendent, who asked him to activate the emergency communication system. Rizzo powered up his laptop logged on to the district’s Website, then sent emails and text messages to parents, teachers, and students 3,000 miles away. He conveyed the message that school would be cancelled, and continued this messaging for the next few days as downed power lines kept the region at a standstill.”

“A good communication system,” Rizzo said, “gives me peace of mind.”