Ohio Adds Schools to its First Responder Communication System

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly two years ago shook Newtown, Conn., and has had far-flung reverberations. Tech companies have continued the push for gun control, the Center for Health Care Services launched a crisis intervention app that provides resources for early intervention and treatment of mental illness, and an app launched in January 2014 gives law enforcement a 60-second head start on school shootings.

Some jurisdictions even installed mobile panic alarms in schools. Take Ohio, where the tragedy pushed state government to expand its wireless emergency communications by offering radios for schools to communicate directly with local law enforcement during a life-threatening situation.  

The idea of the school radios with emergency buttons -- like "fire alarms," but for police -- came up the day of the Sandy Hook tragedy at a meeting addressing the upgrade of Ohio's Multi-Agency Radio Communication System, or MARCS.

"We were discussing how we could possibly leverage that technology to make schools a little safer," said Darryl Anderson, MARCS program director in the Ohio Office of Information Technology (OIT), "and the discussion honed in on our emergency alert capabilities on the system." 

MARCS is Ohio's voice and data platform for public safety and first responder entities built about a decade ago. At the time of the shooting, the state was discussing an upgrade from a 800 MHz radio to a 700/800 MHz radio that would allow more radio capacity and coverage; the state is now nearly finished with that transition.    

Anderson said the OIT worked with Motorola to create what became the desktop MARCS in Schools radio, complete with user-friendly faceplate for use by school professionals. The design was finished by March 2013, and looks like a typical radio except for its orange emergency button, about the size of a silver dollar.

By silently pressing the button, a school bypasses 911 dispatch getting in touch with a local dispatcher trained to answer the alert radio. Using these radios, dispatchers can identify the emergency alert by a school's unique identifier and can hear what's going on through the radio, as well as talk. Law enforcement officers, and other first responders who are paged, are immediately deployed to the scene.

"It cuts out those several precious seconds that otherwise you're dialing 911 and you're talking through the situation with the 911 dispatcher," Anderson said.

During one 911 call from Sandy Hook, those precious seconds were used to connect a cellphone caller from state police to the Newtown Police Department. Alternatively, a MARCS in Schools radio signal feeding into a dispatcher at a local police department cuts out any location or situational questioning, taking 10 seconds to a minute off of the initial police response, Anderson said.

"A one-second response initiation is better than a minute response initiation in any case involving some kind of violence," Anderson said.


Although the alert radios haven't been used during a real emergency, there have been other positive effects -- police and school administrators now have a reason to open the line of communication that otherwise was mostly closed, Anderson said. This relationship building sets the stage for when the two entities might need work together.

"Anytime you have a face-to-face relationship and there's an incident, it's not like you're working with strangers -- you know who you're working with," Anderson said. 

The first radios were offered to Ohio's more than 4,000 schools starting in late 2013 after the Legislature allotted about $29 million in noncompetitive grant funding, more than half of which is used to upgrade the security of school building entrances. Schools can still apply for the grant through the Ohio School Facilities Commission, which pays $2,000 toward a radio purchase for each building. 

Acquiring the radios are free, though many districts pay a $20 per month, per radio fee, unless their counties have negotiated agreements that waive the fees, depending on whether the state is sharing local radio tower resources. Schools can also purchase additional equipment like extension buttons and portable radios to use to communicate with their main office.

The program has faced its challenges, though, given that radio deliveries occur across Ohio's 45,000 square miles, Anderson said. In some instances, buildings need a different antenna or cabling to get a radio signal, which is not covered by the grant money. OIT has also had to deal with the challenges of ensuring that the law enforcement side has a compatible counterpart to the MARCS in Schools radio.

For Coldwater Exempted Village Schools, the MARCS radios are in place in its main offices, but OIT is working to make sure all handheld radios have a radio signal throughout its high school, middle school and elementary school buildings, Anderson said.

Coldwater Superintendent Rich Seas said he thinks the radios will be useful during emergency circumstances like kidnappings or shootings, especially since the signal will go out to multiple law enforcement agencies in the area. 

"Given the school shootings and the discussion about school safety as a result of those school shootings, we certainly took a much more serious look at what we're doing at our schools," he said.

Anderson noted that about 2,000 schools applied for the initial round of grant funding for the radios. Around 1,400 are now in the process of receiving the radios, and about 600 are using local equipment such as handheld radios. While MARCS is widespread, Anderson said, there are some areas that use legacy equipment and so need to procure their own radios, though OIT is helping with that.

In early May, Warren County made the jump from its own 25-year-old analog Motorola system to a MARCS system, saving the county $1 million and paving the way for involvement in the MARCS in Schools program.

Gearing up for its involvement, the county's telecommunications department convened meetings and took several months to finalize a memorandum of understanding laying out the terms of use for the radios among police, fire and schools, said Paul Kindell, director of telecommunications for Warren County.

Much of the discussion was to review scenarios fitting of pushing the big orange button, such as during a violent attack, Kindell said, and not during a medical scenario, for which 911 can be used.

The county chose for its radio to have an open mic that is engaged for 15 seconds when the emergency button is pushed. After that, both parties can communicate by holding down a talk button to clarify what is happening. Additionally the county encrypts its channel to keep the communication from being transmitted to someone in the greater community. That way, Kindell said, law enforcement can act quickly and without interruption. 

"It's considered an all-call, so all law enforcement in the area, whether it's their jurisdiction or not, will typically respond," Kindell said.

Discussions also outlined how to use the radios and what to do during twice yearly required tests to avoid false alarms, because all calls are treated as real ones. "Essentially we said if the button's pushed, it doesn't matter, we're sending help," Kindell said. "It's an emergency until we prove otherwise."

So far, there have been two accidental button pushes -- one during a radio installation -- with both deemed false by nearby law enforcement officers, he said. Each MARCS in Schools radio beeps when pushed to let the user know the radio has connected with law enforcement's radio.

In addition to the emergency alert, Warren County has plans to also use its radios in the reverse direction -- to inform the schools, such as warning them in case of a tornado.

Although OIT recommends schools and law enforcement partners use the radios for emergency response communications on a dedicated channel, it is up to each county to outline their uses, with some -- often in areas of interrupted phone service -- using them as two-way radios between the school and the police department, Anderson said.

"Our position is: 'Here's the technology, here's the default rationale, here's how it can be used -- you decide how best to use it,'" he said. 

OIT and Motorola are continuing to install the radios for the first batch of interested schools in Ohio, but installing radios for the next wave of schools applying now for grant funding should go faster, Anderson said. 

Seas said he is grateful to have the emergency radios. "If somebody wants to do harm, they are going to do harm, the question is, how are you going to minimize and how are you going to stop it as quickly as you can?" he added. "That's what we hope to do."

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