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6/12/2013
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Teachers Get Digital Hotline To Police

CopSync911 app lets teachers and other workers bypass dispatchers and access first responders more quickly in emergency situations.

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In a nightmare scenario like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, would it help to shave minutes or even seconds off police response time to the emergency?

A computerized emergency system from CopSync lets teachers or administrators alert police and other emergency responders to a crisis immediately, without waiting to go through a dispatch center. Arriving as an instant message to the dashboard computer system now common in police and emergency vehicles, a CopSync911 alert carries with it contextual information like the school room number (displayed on a school map) and the teacher assigned to that room -- eliminating the need to dictate these details over the phone.

The software doesn't cut the dispatchers out of the process -- they get the alert at the same time and will still help coordinate a response, said Brian Frieda, chief of police in Sweetwater, Texas, who is among the first to partner with local schools to implement the software. "What we're bypassing is the phone system," he explained. The teacher or administrator doesn't need to be on 911 answering questions, he said, because many of the basic details can be pre-programmed into the system. An officer who gets the alert can then head for the school directly, alerting dispatchers that he is on his way.

[ Cruel deception: Newtown Hoaxes Mar Heartfelt Social Media Posts.]

"At Sandy Hook, it took six minutes before the first officer was even in route," CopSync CEO Ron Woessner said. His goal is to eliminate the gap between sending the alert and dispatching help.

Actually, the emergency response time to the Sandy Hook shootings is the subject of controversy, with the state's official report delayed and some unofficial timelines saying emergency responders arrived almost instantly -- perhaps upon hearing the shooting and before they were officially dispatched.

However long it took, everyone wishes the response could have been faster and stopped the killing sooner. The attack on the school in Newtown, Conn., took the lives of 20 children and six adult staff members. The attacker, Adam Lanza, committed suicide as first responders arrived.

CopSync's base product is a digital communication and data sharing system designed to improve coordination between emergency agencies. Sweetwater had already been using that system, to which CopSync911 is an add-on. "In talking with the schools, we thought this was very viable and had a definite place," Chief Frieda said. "The school board jumped on it."

In Sweetwater, the plan is to put a desktop shortcut icon for the Web-based app on the computer of every teacher, school office worker and administrator. Following a round of testing and evaluation that started in May, the software has already been deployed at several schools and will be in place across the entire district when students return in the fall.

Frieda is pushing CopSync to have a planned mobile app ready by fall as well. The mobile app, which will allow teachers to send an alert from an iOS or Android device, is particularly relevant as the schools are planning to introduce more iPads. "I told them I wanted to have it available for my schools for the start of the school year," Frieda said.

In an active shooter situation, teachers are more likely to be hiding behind a desk than sitting at it typing on a computer, so a mobile device would be a better way to signal for help. Frieda considers the plight of the teachers in Sandy Hook who were hiding in closets and trying to protect their students while the gunman roamed the halls. In a situation like that, he said, an iPad app could allow teachers to silently send an alert to police without giving away their position.

While extreme situations like the Sandy Hook shooting are on everyone's mind, Frieda expects that in practice the system will be used for many more common emergencies -- essentially, any situation where it would be appropriate to call 911. Different icons on the screen make it possible to quickly classify the type of emergency. "If you have an accident in the chemistry lab where something went awry and you need fire and EMS, you can tap the icons saying fire and EMS, and that's what the dispatcher is going to send," Frieda said.

CopSync CEO Woessner said the app for schools was already under development prior to the Newtown shooting, although the tragedy created a surge of interest in better ways of protecting schools. He is also seeing interest from other types of government and community institutions, such as courthouses where judges and staff might need to summon help in a hurry.

Although giving every teacher and worker in a school access to the police dispatch system might seem to require an extraordinary level of trust, Frieda said, "There is no time for a pecking order when making notifications for law enforcement." The risk of a false alarm or overuse of the system is no greater than with 911 calls, he said.

Frieda continued, "We are never going to not respond. We'll respond just like we would with a bank alarm or a 911 hang-up call." Sweetwater has already experienced one false alarm, but the principal called within moments to say the alert had been triggered by accident. Frieda said, "It was no big deal."


Local news coverage of a CopSync911 deployment in Paradise, Texas.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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