A panic button for teachers 

New phone app promises greater school safety, with a sizable price tag.


School is back in session, which means a whole new set of worries for parents: filling supply lists, getting schedules sorted out, and arranging for pickups and drop-offs. Sadly, it also means worrying about safety at school, including the looming specter of school shootings.

A new phone app being implemented statewide in Arkansas schools this fall could alleviate some of those fears. The maker of the app and the sponsors of legislation that mandated its implementation say it will shave precious minutes off response times, allow instant schoolwide alerts in the event of trouble, and be useful in emergencies that are much more common than a shooter on campus. The price tag, however, is high: $950,000 the first year, including a $100,000 setup fee, and $850,000 per year after that.

The $950,000 first-year cost is coming out of the Arkansas Department of Education's budget. The authors of the legislation say they'll be looking for dedicated funding for the app in the next session.

The app is called the Rave Panic Button, and is made by Rave Mobile Safety of Framingham, Mass. The deployment of the app was mandated by the 2015 School Safety Act, which passed during the last legislative session. Under the terms of the legislation, schools across the state are required to implement the app by Sept. 1 (a deadline that has been pushed back while teachers train in the use of the system). The legislation also required that the panic button work with the state's Smart 911 system, which is also made by Rave Mobile Safety. The Smart 911 system gives 911 operators instant access to additional information when a person makes a 911 call from a cell phone, if the caller has previously visited the website www.smart911.com, signed up, and filled out a profile on himself and his family, including information like medical conditions, allergies and current photos. Because Smart 911 is proprietary software owned by Rave Mobile Safety, no bids were taken on the purchase.

If there is an emergency at school, any school employee with the app on his or her phone can open the app, then touch one of several buttons, including medical, fire, police or a large red button for an "active shooter" situation. Once a button is touched, the app dials 911 while simultaneously sending an alert to every other employee of the school stating who touched the button and why. On their end, 911 operators have a digital floor plan of the school and are able to see exactly where the alert came from. Operators are also able to send out schoolwide messages to everyone monitoring the app. While the system is already in use at most public universities in Arkansas, this fall's deployment in over 1,000 public schools in the state is the first statewide deployment for the technology.

Todd Piett, chief product officer with Rave Mobile Safety, said the app has beeninstalled at institutions and government agencies across the country.

Piett said that the company doesn't have numbers on improvement in police response times when the app is in use because of variables like each client's distance from emergency services and whether they have on-site security or medical. He said the system has never been in place during a mass shooting, but is often used during medical, security or fire emergencies. Piett said the company has already hired and trained a technician to do trouble-shooting on the system in the state.

"I'll hear somebody say: I can go have an app built for $100,000," Piett said. "OK. You can actually get a baseline app built for that. But how does [your app] deliver messages to everybody when an incident happens? Now you need a big infrastructure behind it to make sure the messages get out quickly, [that] has capacity so that if you have a massive incident, everybody's going to get the message, and the support and training behind it. When you really dig in, there's quite a bit to it."

Piett said the panic button is also cheaper than infrastructure improvements like fortified doors and windows, given the number of schools in the state.

Rep. Scott Baltz (D-Pocahontas) and Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) were co-sponsors of the 2015 School Safety Act. Baltz, a retired firefighter and EMT, said he became interested in trying to improve safety and security on school campuses in Arkansas after the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012. He said the panic button app's compatibility with the Smart 911 system, the speed at which it can give 911 operators information about a situation and the ability to push out alerts to everyone on campus makes it worth the cost. According to Baltz, the time from when an administrator activated the system at a recent training drill in Benton to the time when every employee received an alert on their phone was three seconds.

"What happened before was: A teacher would get on the intercom and call the office. The office would take the information. They would call dispatch — 911," he said. "Then 911 would get hold of the officer. You're looking at a five- to seven-minute lag time, unless folks dialed 911 immediately. What would happen then, though, was that only one person would know about it. Now, when they punch this app, everyone on that campus knows about it ... . The dispatch will be able to tell the entity that's coming in, police or medical, 'go in the west door of the junior high, go down three doors on the right and that's where it's at.' They'll know exactly where they are. That's going to save minutes."


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