Critical Communications

“Your attention please…” Communications is one of the most important factors in providing a safe learning environment. As technology progresses, sometimes faster than we can keep up with, it is important to remember the basics. So before assuming that wireless and/or VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) systems have replaced traditional systems, “lend me your ear.” This article will address the importance of a dedicated school intercom system, as well as an integrated, district-wide Crisis Notification System.

A dedicated school intercom system is considered by many to be a life-safety device. It is the method by which day-to-day operational messages are distributed, but also serves as the facility’s emergency communications system.

In an effort to cut costs, some schools have decided to eliminate the dedicated intercom system and use their telephone system as the means of communication to students and staff. While sounding reasonable at first, there are life-safety considerations that should be addressed.

It is almost impossible to adequately page a classroom filled with noisy students through a tiny two-inch telephone speaker. A typical intercom speaker measures eight-inches in diameter and produces a much louder broadcast. This can be imperative in case of an emergency, such as a lockdown or severe weather alert.

Intercom systems generally include a classroom call switch that initiates a call to the main office. Most manufacturers offer two-button call switches, allowing the operator to choose “normal” or “emergency” when placing the call. Single-button stations typically have the ability to upgrade the call status to “emergency” simply by holding the button in for a longer duration or pressing the button multiple times. This panic feature ensures that administrative personnel are aware of the urgency of the call.

New schools built with only a paging system or telephone system, instead of a dedicated two-way intercom system, do not have the call switch feature. Likewise, in existing buildings where a telephone paging system replaces a dedicated intercom system, the call switches are typically removed — or even worse, are left in place, but become non-operational.

One might wonder why a call switch is important if the classroom has a telephone. Say, for instance, a classroom emergency arises and the teacher becomes incapacitated: would any of the students know the extension to dial on the telephone to reach the office? What if someone was using the office extension and the classroom phone received a “busy” signal? The extra time spent for the students to decide who was going to run to the office… and then finally making the trip… could mean life or death!

A call switch is a simple-to-operate device. A typical student should have the ability to push the call button in case of emergency. A call switch provides immediate notification to administrative locations that an emergency situation exists. Administrative personnel know from the annunciation of the pending call that a higher than normal status of call-in is present and can take appropriate action immediately.

Hands-free intercom provides effective and efficient two-way voice communications with individual locations. Also known as “open-voice speaker communications,” intercom provides staff and students alike with the ability to respond to administrative calls to classrooms in a hands-free mode. This hands-free capability can be very useful in those events that staff find themselves unable to move to answer a ringing telephone, whereby they might be required to leave the side of an injured student or other staffer. Intercom provides an alternative method of communicating with classrooms in the event the telephone system or specific classroom telephone is damaged or disabled.

Remote system access provides district administration with the ability to use the communication system from multiple locations. This remote access enables authorized personnel to communicate with a site or sites as they relocate to an alternate command site, for example. Likewise, remote access enables authorized first responders to access a communication system for the purpose of obtaining information about events even before their on-scene arrival.

A dedicated intercom system also serves as a backup should the telephone system cease to operate. Having two separate forms of available communication (telephone and intercom) greatly increases the chances of reaching the appropriate parties in case of an emergency.

On a broader level, the typical school intercom can be used in a Crisis Notification System, linking multiple schools within a district or campus.

A Crisis Notification System (CNS) can be a school district’s most valuable communication resource in any crisis. Knowing how to respond quickly and effectively in a crisis is critical to ensuring the safety of school staff and students.

A flexible, comprehensive communications platform provides a means for broadcasting announcements to students, faculty, staff and visitors. CNS can alert everyone to an emergency that is imminent or in progress and instruct them on how to respond. This alert can be delivered at one school facility, all of a school district’s facilities or only those facilities in imminent danger.

According to Kevin Neville, sales engineer for ITR Systems, “The Crisis Notification System allows an entire district of intercom systems to be ‘networked’ together to form a unified emergency communication system.” Most districts have more than one manufacturer’s equipment installed among their many schools. However, according to Mr. Neville, “Telecor has addressed this by engineering their CNS to interface with intercom systems from all manufacturers.” This means that a CNS can be implemented in brand new schools as well as all existing buildings.

From the district office, a Crisis Notification System needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the individual needs of each school district or campus, and have the capacity for district-wide administration. A CNS that employs IP Network Protocol to broadcast all messages through the school’s LAN/WAN is very efficient, as it uses the school’s existing technology infrastructure. Messages can be pre-recorded to provide planned responses to specific situations, or they can be broadcast live to address unique or changing situations.

A CNS’ customizable GUI (Graphical User Interface) can be a useful tool for a district. Such GUI will represent the relative location of each facility and can be displayed using an uploaded background map of the area. From this GUI, the operator can select which buildings receive announcements simply by pointing to the building icon on the screen and clicking a mouse. The installing dealer would typically set up the GUI with input from school personnel to achieve a look & feel that is comfortable to the user.

Network connections and the status of each school’s PA (Public Address) system are fully monitored. Some Crisis Notification Systems constantly probe each location of its status to ensure that all selected schools have received the appropriate notifications. Status indicators for each school will display any communication failures.

Each school that is connected to the CNS system has the ability to initiate pre-recorded or live voice emergency messages locally from within the school by authorized staff. Once an emergency announcement is triggered, a message is automatically transmitted to the district office or command center.

Integration with wireless technology is proven to increase the speed of all action in response to an emergency. The best Crisis Notification Systems will send immediate messages to a wide array of wireless devices including PDAs, pagers and mobile phones. Additionally, e-mail notification and pop-up notification alerts on office PCs can relay information to all appropriate personnel. Visual messages can also be broadcast to electronic message displays located in schools or campus buildings area-wide.

Districts are advised to incorporate the standards for Communications Systems for Life Safety in Schools, published as NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturers Association) Standard SB 40-2008. These standards recommend a number of valuable practices for all schools and school districts, regardless of size or location, that are designed to ensure the safety of students, staff and the community.

The above standard describes potential emergency events including the following.
  • Tornado/Weather Alerts
  • Bomb Threats
  • Armed Intruder/Hostage Situations
  • Chemical Spill/Gas Leaks
  • Injured Students/Staff Medical Issues
  • Physical/Sexual Assault on Students/Staff
  • Child Abduction/Non-Custodial Parents
  • Facility Used as Emergency Shelter

Many experts in K-12 security recommend school districts and schools establish emergency action plans before any of the above emergencies should occur. These emergency plans should incorporate systems that include the following features according to SB 40-2008.
  • Live and Pre-Recorded Paging
  • Hands-Free Intercom
  • Dedicated Emergency Call Switches
  • Remote System Access
  • Emergency Tones
  • Visual Displays
There are benefits to both types of audio paging — live and pre-recorded. Pre-recorded messages typically use calm, steady voices that instill confidence and calm in those listening to the instructions being provided over the public address system. Live-voice paging provides real-time instructions based on changing situations or events that escaped the pre-established emergency action plans.

A variety of emergency tones provide staff and students with easily recognized notice that an event is in progress. Staff familiarity with the tones enables them to respond appropriately and efficiently to various situations.

SB 40-2008 also advocates the implementation of visual displays. These devices are for the ongoing deliverance of information in support of the pre-recorded or live messages that may have been enabled.

So where do you stand in terms of critical communications? Now is the time to address this important topic. A proactive approach to communications, one that demonstrates thoughtful emergency planning and preparedness, is the best way to provide a safe learning environment and silence the critics.

Paul Timm is a board-certified Physical Security Professional (PSP), president of RETA Security, Inc. and a nationally acclaimed expert in school security. Kevin Neville is sales engineer for ITR Systems, located in Downers Grove, Ill.