Ohio Schools Achieve 2-Way Radio Interoperability

The Buckeye State has developed two systems that K-12 districts and police can use to effectively communicate with each other during an emergency.
Published: November 20, 2014

In the wake of school shootings across the country, education officials have stepped up efforts to improve campus security. The focus has been on improving communications between on-site school personnel and first responders in order to shorten response times. Getting police, fire and emergency teams on the scene as quickly as possible is vital in bringing such mission-critical situations to a safe conclusion.

After the February 2012 shooting at Chardon (Ohio) High School in which three students were killed, it was evident that an effective, comprehensive security program was needed to ensure the safety of both students and staff. Since that time, the state of Ohio has implemented two interoperable radio systems and has worked with district school officials to develop safety procedures that can be initiated in the event of an emergency. The two-way radio communications systems, MARCS In-School and SchoolSAFE, provide a direct link to law enforcement and emergency personnel, resulting in a well-coordinated rapid response.

Sandy Hook Tragedy Prompts Upgrade

The MARCS In-School radio system was created as a direct result of another tragic school shooting that took place in 2012 and captured the nation’s attention.

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“On Dec. 12, 2012, we were in a project update meeting with our Motorola project team when we learned the news about Sandy Hook [in Newtown, Conn.],” says MARCS Director Darryl Anderson. “We asked ourselves if we could leverage our new technology to improve security for our schools. Hence the idea of the MARCS In-School emergency alert radio was initiated.”

The MARCS In-School radio system was built upon Ohio’s Multi-Agency Radio Communication System (MARCS), providing wireless interoperability communications to more than 700 agencies throughout the state. Manufactured by Motorola and developed by MARCS, the radio can be placed in a designated area of the building, allowing a school administrator to immediately send for help to a first responder agency by simply pressing the large orange button located on the front of the radio.

“We challenged Motorola to develop a specialized faceplate, simplifying and emphasizing the emergency button,” states Anderson. “The result is a faceplate with an emergency button approximately the size of a silver dollar.” Once the button is pressed, an emergency signal is sent directly to a dispatcher within seconds, who can then listen to the caller’s description of the situation and alert emergency services.

RELATED: Plans, Training and Partnerships Play Important in K-12 Emergency Communications

The MARCS In-School radio is to law enforcement what the fire alarm is to fire fighters. It’s not designed to take the place of calling 911, but to act as an emergency system when school personnel are unable to call or get through to 911 in a life-threatening situation. However, Anderson claims that school administrators and police officials must closely coordinate the installation and protocols surrounding the technology.

“Procedures must be established for both the ‘alarm’ radios in the schools and the ‘catch’ radios in the police dispatch centers; practitioners must be trained, and periodic tests must be conducted in order to ensure proper response in a real incident,” he says.

Web-Based Radios Provide Interoperability

In addition to MARCS, SchoolSAFE was adopted to provide even greater two-way radio coverage on campus as well as communications with local law enforcement during emergencies.

School SAFE is a web-enabled, two-way radio-based solution that provides communications interoperability between school radio systems and public safety radio systems. It was first deployed in the state of Colorado in 2007. Utilizing digital signaling to bridge the radio systems, and equipped with remote activation and de-activation software, SchoolSAFE allows school personnel carrying radios on campus to talk directly with first responders for rapid response.

In March of this year, Motorola and Chardon Area Schools announced the launch of SchoolSAFE as part of a pilot program. SAFECOM911 Communications partnered with Motorola, which made SchoolSAFE available through its channels. Motorola also donated approximately 250 mobile radios to 10 schools in the district and provided hands-on training to school administrators and staff.

How the Response Process Works

According to Mike Coleman, vice president of business development for QDS Communications Inc., the SchoolSAFE process starts when school personnel recognize a situation that warrants a call to public safety. Each school has its own protocol as to who calls, so it might be the front desk, a designated administrator or the staff member witnessing an incident. The situation can also be relayed by a student or non-school involved individual, such as a parent or nearby homeowner, even without the school’s knowledge.

“The dispatcher/call taker receives the call on 911 or regular phone line and starts the process to enter the information into their dispatch software (CAD) and assign units. Public safety units are dispatched,” says Coleman.

SchoolSAFE is usually activated during this process, allowing on-scene school staff to use their everyday radios to provide real-time updates of the situation to emergency personnel. Dispatch and first responders can then reply directly to school staff with information or directions, setting off a participative process to resolve the situation.

Systems Bolster School Relationships With First Responders

Superintendent of Chardon Local Schools, Michael Hanlon, says that the implementation of the MARCS and SchoolSAFE systems have enhanced the strong existing relationship between their schools and those responding to critical incidents.

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