Michigan schools look to panic button in emergencies

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

It’s not unusual for Brian Metcalf to hear the siren of an ambulance or police car headed toward one of his schools while receiving a text notifying him of an emergency.

That’s because Grand Ledge Public Schools superintendent and his school staff have installed a "panic button app system" on their smartphones. The app allows school personnel to have instant communication with 911 centers and first responders during an emergency. 

In Grand Ledge, educators are using the Rave Panic Button for emergencies.

“It happens very, very quickly," he said. "I can’t image how we would do it faster than the app allows us to do."

In the wake of violent attacks on public schools across the United States, Michigan lawmakers want to offer school districts $25 million in school safety grants they can use to subscribe to a panic button app system and other security measures.

Eaton County 911 Dispatch Center supervisor and dispatcher Francis D'Huyvetter performs his duties.

The money, which is part of a $58 million package for school safety, would go in the State Police budget and is expected to be approved by lawmakers on Tuesday.

In Grand Ledge, educators are using the Rave Panic Button. One press opens the app. Then the user selects one of five circled options: active shooter, fire, police, AED (automated external defibrillator) and other. 

When the app is activated, it first calls 911. While that call is being set up with dispatchers to collect critical information, the app immediately triggers a mass notification to key school officials.

That means school personnel often get alerts before emergency responders are on the scene.

Eaton County’s 911 supervisor Robert Stahelin said school districts in the county began using the panic button app three years ago. Today, 15 of the 16 districts in the county use the app.

“Active shooters are over in a few minutes," Stahelin said. "Many are over before we can get police there. I know this can save lives."

It took the gunman in Parkland, Florida, a little more than six minutes to kill 17 people after spraying three classrooms with an AR-15 rifle.

In Eaton County, the app has been used 255 times in the 2017-18 school year, which included training and drills such as lock-downs at the 15 districts.

The most common app use is for medical emergencies on campus and physical injuries, such as a broken limb. While the county has not had an active shooter situation, it has had "potential assailant scenarios," Stahelin said.

A school resource officer last year received information directly that a student on campus may have a gun. It was inaccurate information, but the app allowed the school staff to communicate effectively and quickly, he said.

"The event lasted an hour. We provided updates. We had descriptions. Then we had the name of the student," he said. "We are able to send a message to everyone on campus ... that the person of interest may be locked down in your classroom."

Schools and courthouses in about half the states use Rave Mobile Safety technology, covering 3 million students, said Todd Miller, the company's chief operating officer. 

“We are unique in our ability to tie directly into the 911 system,"  Miller said. "This is a public safety grade application."

About 100 schools across 16 Michigan counties currently have or will be deploying Rave Panic Button to all their public K-12 schools in the next two months, Miller said.

The cost is between $15-$30 per faculty/staff member per year depending on variables, such as the number of schools and duration of the contract, Miller said.

"There are scales of economy with larger deployments across counties or an entire state that can help keep the costs on the lower end of the spectrum," Miller said. 

In Eaton County, officials worked with the districts to secure a school safety grant from the state to pay for the app, said Michael Armitage, 911 Director/Interim Emergency Manager for Eaton County.

In 2015, the county paid $117,600 for five years of licensing.

Currently, there are no schools or districts in Macomb, Oakland or Wayne that use the technology.

Chris Wigent, president of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said his organization supports several school security measures, including the panic button system. 

But Wigent said no districts or schools would be forced to use the technology. Rather it would be an option among other measures to secure schools if approved by lawmakers.

“The intent of this is that every district that wants to utilize it can. It’s not required. One size doesn’t fit all,” Wigent said. 

“All I have heard is positive from those who use it. ... It’s one of the many effective methods out there."

Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, counsels state and federal lawmakers on school safety policies and crisis response.

Trump said schools should be able to assess a wide range of communications products to determine what fits their own local needs. There are a number of products on the market for responding to school emergencies.

But what's more important to do first, Trump said, is for schools to ensure that fundamental school emergency planning is in place.

"A lot of people are looking for items with bells and whistles and are missing the focus on fundamentals, such as crisis teams and threat assessments teams," he said. "Some of these products may or may not be helpful."

Challenges with limited Wi-Fi or cellular services in rural areas or older buildings could make such a system useless, he said.

"Schools need to make sure they have practical building-level school emergency plans," he said. "...They need staff training on security and emergency preparedness. They need to create a culture for a student to make reports on threats and provide mental health services to prevent these types of events in the first place."

Metcalf, with Grand Ledge Public Schools, said the app has been used district-wide sometimes on a daily basis to assist some of its 5,200 students across seven buildings.

It is voluntary for school employees. Not everyone has a smartphone, and no one is forced to use the system, he said.

"More than anything, it allows us to be ready for real emergencies. It allows us to have the quickest response rate," Metcalf said. "We know that time matters in any type of crisis, in an asthma attack or active shooter. We know those seconds matter."