I’ve learned a lot about school public address systems during years of trial and error conducting lockdown drills around the country and providing K-12 clients with comprehensive intruder/active lethal threat site assessments of their campuses. In the late nineties, I started recognizing a pattern where most shooters chose to begin their massacres during passing periods. These times include before and after school, lunch times and other times when students pass through hallways, providing the shooter with a large target group with density of population becoming an advantage for them.
Back then, this prompted my partner, Dave Redding and me to run an active shooter drill during a passing period given that it was more likely that a shooter would pick this time to initiate an attack. Before the drill started with the lockdown announcement, Dave and I decided to stand in the hallways near the cafeteria of the school within a few feet of an overhead public address (PA) system speaker.
The drill was initiated, and we were shocked to discover that we could not hear the lockdown announcement given the volume of the students talking and laughing in the hallways during this passing period. It was only one of many “Ahas” that we learned, but for the sake of this article, I want to focus on PAs.
PAs Are the Best Mass Immediate Notification Systems in Emergencies
A PA system is what I refer to as a mass immediate notification system. When you say something over the PA system, everyone else in the school should hear it at exactly the same time as you are saying it. This is why the PA system is the most important technical component of your lockdown plan. The sooner we can implement a lockdown and students, staff and visitors can hear a lockdown announcement, the greater the chance of survival of those who are both near and not near the threat.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) Public Safety Commission’s report noted that some students and staff didn’t know what to do or did the wrong thing because they couldn’t hear the Code Red announcement during the school’s Feb. 14, 2018 mass shooting. (By the way, if you are a school administrator reading this article, please stop using color codes for life and death situations!)
I point this out to demonstrate why implementing an expeditious lockdown plan with the help of an effective PA system is critical in mitigating the number of deaths and injuries sustained in these types of incidents given that no shooter has breached a locked interior door to date.
Emergency PA Announcements Must Be Audible and Intelligible
I’m sure that many of you can remember when you were students having to be quiet during the morning announcements during your first period class. The PA would buzz, ding or have a short tone, and an administrator’s voice would start with a cheery “Good Morning!” The Pledge of Allegiance would soon follow, and once students were seated, the morning announcements would begin. If any students were talking during this time, there was a quick “shhhh” from the teacher or other students to be quiet.
The school PA system was never designed to be louder than the volume of the students talking and playing around with each other in the hallways. Despite this, campuses rely on PA systems to communicate emergency information — information that can’t be heard during passing periods when most shootings occur. As you might guess, this epiphany helped us to realize that we needed to increase the volume and clarity of the PA announcement during a lockdown.
So how does this apply to you, and what can you do about it? My company has been providing intruder/active lethal threat site assessments for schools, government facilities, private companies, courthouse, etc., for years now. As part of our review, we provide a lockdown observation drill where volunteers observe in real time your lockdown drill (the number of volunteers are determined by the size of all of the buildings on a campus and how many acres the campus sits on). Given that they are stationed throughout every hallway, gymnasium, floor and all exterior locations where a student or staff member could be during the school day, one of the main areas observers are told to evaluate during the lockdown announcement is the audibility and intelligibility of the school’s PA lockdown announcement.
Audibility simply refers to the volume of the message. Is the volume so low given the ambient sounds of students and staff socializing and talking during passing periods that you can’t tell that someone is making an announcement?
Intelligibility refers to the clarity of the message. Can the message easily be understood? If you can tell someone is making an announcement but you can’t understand what they are saying, then the message is unintelligible.
Some PA systems have great audibility but no intelligibility while others have great intelligibility but no audibility.
Recently, we were assessing a high school with a student population of about 2,800 students. This particular high school was only the second client of the dozens of site assessments that we have conducted that took us up on our challenge to run a lockdown during a passing period. We took a decibel reading before the lockdown began, and the reading for ambient noise level in the hallways was 90. We then took a decibel reading of the looping lockdown VoIP announcement while the school was in lockdown, and it registered as 87. In other words, the volume of their students during passing periods was higher than the volume of their PA/VoIP system announcement, so most people couldn’t hear or understand the announcement, especially in areas where large groups of students were gathered, like in the student commons, gymnasium and automotive classrooms.
Any K-12 campus that uses its PA system for emergency notifications must ensure that these messages are loud enough and intelligible enough during passing periods.
VoIP Phones Have Their Benefits
Many schools in America have implemented voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone systems as they allow you to use your phone base as an intercom. They also provide the function of allowing anyone at any phone in the school to initiate a lockdown announcement (although I wonder who is really ready or wants to do this during an actual active lethal threat event). At the school district mentioned above, any employee of the school can pick up a phone and hit a pre-set lockdown button, one time, and after confirming that you want the lockdown activated, it initiates a pre-recorded, automated lockdown announcement.
If you aren’t currently considering pre-recorded lockdown activation, you should. This ability to activate a lockdown from wherever you are is a breakthrough in implementing a faster lockdown, and we have been teaching it for more than 18 years. Not only is the voice on the pre-recorded message calm during the event, but it also frees up staff to do what they are supposed to do… save student, staff and visitor lives. This type of lockdown can also be cleared the same way or manually.
Some of these systems provide this function as part of the vendor’s contract with the school, but many schools don’t realize they have this function available. Additionally, some of these VoIP systems allow you to integrate your phone system into your PA system thereby providing you additional speaker coverage for purposes of audibility and intelligibility.
VoIP System Activation Poses Challenges
There are, however, some challenges to this type of system that schools don’t often consider. Staff must also be trained to become proficient with the system so that during a high stress situation, they can actually activate it without delay.
The biggest issue we have seen with our clients while conducting their site assessment lockdown observation drills is the activation of the system. Let me provide you with a few scenarios we have observed as school administrators attempted to use these systems during our observation drill. Remember that any delay in activating your lockdown announcement, manually or pre-recorded, may cost you more injuries and loss of life.
- At one school we asked the administrator how many phones had the functionality to allow anyone to activate the lockdown. He replied three phones had this ability. I then asked him where those phones were located, and he grimaced as he embarrassingly replied, “In the main office.” As you might guess, very few school shootings occur at the main office, so having all of the phones that have this capability there is not realistic or useful to other staff where the shooting might actually occur.
- The principal picked up the phone to initiate the pre-recorded lockdown and started to enter what he thought was the activation code. When nothing happened, he looked over at his administrative support staff and asked them what the code was. They were not sure, so they then had to look it up in their procedures manual, and they eventually activated the pre-recorded lockdown.
- Another school district went to activate their system but nothing happened. It took them approximately 100 seconds to correct what went wrong before they were able to activate their pre-recorded lockdown.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. These pre-recorded systems are a great improvement to lockdown implementation and will save lives when used properly. However, they will increase your liability if staff don’t know how to initiate them quickly.
Address Your Public Address Problems Now
Schools and their safety departments must examine the empirical evidence related to these active lethal threat events and prepare their plans based on the evidence and survivor stories rather than on what they think their PA systems can do. Please don’t wait for an incident to occur on your campus before you address this issue.
Jesus M. Villahermosa Jr. is the president and owner of Crisis Reality Training Inc. and has 33 years of experience in law enforcement, site assessment and school safety.
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