School shootings have a big impact on society’s security. Although these events are rare, when they do happen they generate much fear and anxiety for all parents — civilian and sworn alike. As a retired police officer and parent, I have often wished that I didn’t know the intimacies of the law enforcement profession so that I could convince myself that if something bad were to happen in my community, I could at least pretend that the police response would be sufficient and timely. The unfortunate truth is, I am well aware that the police agencies where I live, and from where I recently retired, are severely understaffed and under-equipped.
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Having retired from my agency as a patrol sergeant with a background in SWAT and training, I know one thing is for sure: If there is ever a shooting at my children’s school, I’m responding!
Time Is Life
Upon retiring, my agency was at least 20-percent understaffed. There were shifts that I worked where if someone called in sick, a patrol beat would not have had a police officer assigned to work it. In addition, anyone caught on GPS going over 60 miles per hour—no matter what the reason—was subject to progressive discipline. In a city that spans 62 square miles and a population over 150,000, it was becoming increasingly more common to have calls pending due to a lack of available police officers. Consider that the national average for a police officer to respond is about eight minutes, and the average amount of time it takes for someone to notify 911 of an active threat is about six minutes. According to a study conducted by the FBI in May 2013 of the shootings where duration could be determined, 69 percent of those shootings lasted under five minutes. And of those incidents, more than half concluded in less than two minutes. Homeland Security statistics report that the average school shooting lasts 12.5 minutes. What this tells me as a police officer is that, should a school shooting occur in my children’s schools, the only chance those children have is a combination of luck and a quick police response time.
Long ago, my husband (also a police officer) and I decided that if we learned of an incident at our children’s schools (not in our jurisdiction) we would respond regardless of the disciplinary and legal consequences. We actually did respond a couple days after the shooting at Sandy Hook, when we received a “code red” alert from our daughter’s high school. We had no idea what “code red,” meant except that it was the highest threat level. We responded with full gear. When we arrived, the body language of the school resource officer outside telegraphed to us that there was no active shooter threat. Later, the school contacted the parents with a message that the incident was a bomb threat. Our daughter told us that they weren’t told what the problem was when they went into lockdown mode, and many teachers and kids became very upset. She was comforted when I told her that, so long as we are aware of a serious problem at the school, we would respond.
At a law enforcement exposition earlier this year, I stumbled upon a booth for a new series of smartphone applications: Hero911 and SchoolGuard, an application active nationwide in K-12 schools and now colleges and private sectors. These applications have put into reality something that I had personally hoped to have: real-time notifications of school shootings in my area.
The SchoolGuard app technology gives school personnel the ability to simultaneously notify other staff members, 911, all other participating schools within 5 miles and any registered law enforcement officers on or off duty who are in close proximity (within 10 to 20 miles of the incident). Teachers and staff can download the application to their smartphones, and the notification is activated when they press the panic button. This notification will only function when the staff member is on the school grounds of the school that is enrolled in the program. In addition, a map of the location of the initial alert is displayed on each subscriber’s mobile phone.
Hero911 is an end-user application for law enforcement officers. When school personnel activate the panic button within the app, those qualified law enforcement officers who are registered and verified users will receive an alert through their phones. The alert is the sound of a siren. The registered law enforcement officers must be within 10 to 20 miles to be notified of the incident. They can respond if they are available to respond. Their response indicates whether or not they will respond in uniform. This is mandated information the responding officer must provide in order to notify responding officers of the presence of non-uniformed officers.
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The developers of Hero911 list the following as their objectives with the smartphone application:
- Increase awareness through education of our country’s number one domestic act of terrorism: the active shooter.
- Reduce the response time to active-shooter incidents.
- Increase the number of officers responding to active shooter incidents in a shorter amount of time.
- Make the public feel safer in the community.
- Create a platform to allow for law enforcement strategy development in response to current safety issues.
- Create a proactive network of sworn law enforcement officers who are willing to help safeguard the community.
- Provide financial support to families of fallen officers.
- Expand relationships between law enforcement officers and active-shooter targets.
- Work with law enforcement agencies to enhance on-duty and off-duty critical incident response policies and protocols.
It has been estimated that cutting police response times by one minute could save 4.7 lives. The development of the SchoolGuard and Hero911 applications should provide a collective sigh of relief. Their development has the potential to curtail a deadly and disturbing trend of active shooters targeting defenseless children, teachers and school staff. Notifying available law enforcement within the vicinity may just be key to reducing the frequency of these events.