Maine Schools Adopt Affordable Emergency-Alert Solution

By Michael Belfiore

A beacon-based system provides real-time location information at the press of a smartphone's button.

The events of December 14, 2012—when a gunman burst into the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 adults and children—remains indelibly etched in the minds of educators and parents everywhere. As a result, public school officials nationwide are still asking the question: What can we do if Sandy Hook happens here?

This fall, in time for the 2015-16 school year, the superintendents of the five school districts in Franklin County, Maine, answered that question. That's when all 16 schools in the districts were equipped with an emergency-alert solution from Punch Alert, based in Charlotte, N.C. The system lets teachers and school officials send out distress calls with a touch of a button on a smartphone application. Thanks to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons installed within the schools, the system can also forward an intruder's location to first-responders.

Punch Alert's mobile app turns an iOS or Android device into a mobile panic alarm. Offline Mode allows users to report emergencies even when they don't have Wi-Fi access or a data connection.

Punch Alert will bring first-responders to the scene of an emergency more quickly and with better information, says Shane Cote, the deputy police chief of the Farmington, Maine, police department, who led the effort to install the new system. And that, he says, will save lives during an emergency.

Shane Cote

Planning for the Unthinkable
In December 2014, Cote attended a school-security conference in Tucson, Ariz., where he learned there's no shortage of technology-based ideas for responding to emergency situations. Back home, he made some recommendations to the Franklin County school superintendents, but all the technology solutions were too expensive for the schools' budgets.

Then, at the Maine Chiefs of Police Association conference in February 2015, Cote connected with a company that provides emergency communications services to schools. He scheduled a meeting for the vendor and Tom Ward, the superintendent of Franklin County's Regional School Unit (RSU) 9, one of the five school districts. Ward was receptive to the idea of using the notification technology within his district—provided that money for it could be found.

A break came in April, when Cote learned that a grant was available from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, through the Maine Emergency Management Agency, that could be used to provide security systems for Franklin County schools. He raised the topic at a regularly scheduled emergency-planning meeting held that month at the Farmington Fire Department for local police and fire departments. A representative from RSU 58, another of the five school districts, also attended the meeting.

The plan was well received, so Cote, and fellow emergency notification advocate Lieutenant David Rackliffe of the Farmington County Sheriff's Department, decided not to waste any time. During the meeting, they called the vendor to obtain a quote for outfitting all 16 elementary, middle and high schools in all five public school districts in Franklin County. "They came back to us with a price," Cote recalls, "and we said, 'Let's do it.'"

A user can submit information to emergency responders in the form of text notes, images, video or audio recordings. Punch Alert allows responders to crowd-source this information and redistribute it to everyone on campus as a mass notification.

Getting it done, however, turned out not to be so easy. "We submitted the application," Cote recalls, "and we found out we needed to have three quotes" to win approval for federal grant money.

While Cote, who by now was spearheading the effort as project leader, identified two other potential providers, Franklin County emergency services gave its support to the project, and one at a time, the school districts backed it. Cote formed a committee that included representatives from all law-enforcement departments in the county, as well as Maine's state police and all of the school districts. The committee was tasked with evaluating the emergency-alert systems and getting one installed.

In June, Cote invited the three vendors to present their solutions to the committee. "As a committee, we looked at and talked about the different presentations," Cote says, "and the committee chose to go with Punch Alert." Cote submitted the grant application, presenting the three bidders and outlining the justifications for choosing that system.

"One of the other vendors was also app-based, requiring either a smartphone or tablet," Cote explains. "The other vendor was computer-based, but did have an app for phones or tablets." However, he adds, "neither of them had an indoor-based location system to help locate and track the emergency."

In addition Punch Alerts' licensing structure has a set fee for each user in the school districts, and no cost for emergency responders. Competing systems had heftier upfront costs and licensing fees, Cote says.

Instantly after an emergency is reported, responders receive an e-mail, text message and automated phone call with the name and location of the person who reported that emergency.

This time, Franklin County was awarded $14,000 to install Punch Alert.

Real-Time Information at the Push of a Button
The system works with iOS or Android smartphones. "In a world where we all carry smartphones, our readers are on us at all times," says Greg Artzt, Punch Alert's CEO.

By "readers," Artzt means RFID readers. He characterizes the smartphones that way because they are able to receive radio signals from the system's Estimote BLE beacons. The beacons, which function as active RFID tags, transmit a unique identification number roughly every second to nearby smartphones. The ID numbers are linked to the beacons' physical locations in the Punch Alert database. Estimote beacons have a read range of up to 70 meters (230 feet).

The Punch Alert solution also includes a smartphone application that features a panic button. If a teacher or other school official presses the panic button or triple-clicks the power button on his or her smartphone, this action sends an alert, along with a beacon ID, to Punch Alert's cloud-based software. Within five seconds, a generic emergency call goes out, along with the user's location, to all relevant parties—school administrators and emergency services dispatchers. The dispatchers see the alert location on a Web-based console running on their desktop computers. They also see the locations of first-responders on the scene when they check in using the Punch Alert app on their own smartphones.

If circumstances allow, a user can select from emergency categories predefined by school officials, such as active shooter, medical emergency or fire. The software is configured so that, depending on the alert, an emergency plan—locking down classrooms and offices, for example—goes out to all school faculty members. The user can also provide additional information via text, voice, picture or video.

All campuses using Punch Alert are geofenced to ensure that only those onsite are tracked in the event of an emergency.

To be as effective as possible, the Punch Alert system would need a beacon in every location at which it might need to be used—which, in this case, would mean a minimum of several per floor of each school building, or preferably one per classroom. The initial 100-beacon installation spread across the 16 schools will not provide that coverage, however, and the Homeland Security grant was insufficient to provide more. But the districts plan to purchase more beacons each year to round out their coverage, which means that the system should become more effective over time.

Installation began in August 2015 and was completed for many of the schools by the end of September. Deployment for the rest of the schools, as well as training for the schools and first–responders, was targeted for October. "People are excited to have this extra tool to get the police to a school emergency faster," Cote says.

Safer Schools
At $100 each, the beacons are a significant part of the total cost of the system, the installation of which (along with the first two years of licensing fees for the county's 800 paid users) is funded with the $14,000 grant. Installation costs are minimal, Cote says. Installation takes only five minutes per beacon, Artzt explains, since no wiring is involved. The beacons' batteries should last 38 months, but the schools are instructed to change the batteries or replace the beacons every two years to give them a wide margin.

After the first two years, the school districts will have to include the licensing fee of $15 per user per year in their normal budgets, Cote says. But he's confident they will be able to do so, as well as find the money needed to add additional beacons.

The Punch Alert Web Console dashboard enables administrators to manage users, geofence campus locations, set up iBeacons, curate emergency plans and customize emergency notifications and alerts, and emergency responders to manage active emergencies, review resolved incidents and run tests or drills.

According to Cote, he and the school superintendents agree that knowing the precise location of an emergency is valuable information, but even being able to identify the general location is helpful. In addition, he says, the Punch Alert system could save lives, "even if it's only thirty seconds quicker than picking up the phone and calling 911, explaining to a dispatcher what's going on, and the dispatcher getting on the radio and putting it out on the radio."

Cote says he couldn't be happier with the results, but now that all of the county's public schools have Punch Alert and six beacons apiece, he does look forward to the day when beacons can be fully deployed throughout the school buildings. Sooner than that, though, Franklin County plans to add parents to the system, without additional cost. Cote anticipates making use of that functionality to alert the wider school community of ordinary delays caused by weather or school closings due to unforeseen non-emergency events, such as heating-system failures. "That's the future," Cote says. "That's coming."