Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Assessing Technology Solutions

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, our center has been flooded with inquiries about new campus safety technology solutions for institutions of higher education as well as for K–12 schools. As in the wake of the Columbine and Virginia Tech events, there has been a veritable explosion of new products and technology solutions for campus safety. These new options have ranged from the truly bizarre to some of the most intelligent and practical technology innovations I have seen in more than three decades in the campus safety field.

On the bizarre side, vendors have offered bullet-resistant whiteboards, pepper spray canisters mounted in breakable glass cases for classrooms and engineering services to make classrooms and office areas bulletproof (at a cost of only a few million dollars per facility). Fortunately, there have also been a host of other more viable campus safety solutions that have come to market. These include improved emergency communications systems, improved duress button systems and a number of other valuable tools.

How do campus officials determine which new safety technology solutions are the most feasible for their situations and finite budgets? Here are a few considerations our analysts feel are important:

1. Solutions focused only on active-shooter incidents are of less value than those that cover an array of threats. While media coverage of these events has intensified, the reality is that the vast majority of campus homicides over the past 15 years do not involve active-shooter incidents. While active-shooter incidents are a significant concern and can occur on any campus, they are still extremely rare. It is dangerous to use limited resources to address only rare events if other far more likely types of incidents that result in an even larger number of deaths are left unaddressed.

2. Technologies that have been thoroughly tested on your type of campus will work best. We recommend that our clients check with several institutions that are of similar size and complexity that have utilized the technology.

3. Regional environmental factors such as extreme cold, heat, bright sunlight, humidity and dust should also be considered. Campus safety technology that works extremely well in one setting may sometimes not be as effective for campuses with different situations.

4. Sustainability is extremely important. I have seen numerous situations where safety equipment that was implemented is no longer operable. Most typically, these situations occur when new technology is implemented during periods of heightened concern after a highly publicized campus shooting. In many of these cases, funding to sustain the system has been cut in later years.

5. If local vendors will be installing technology solutions purchased from a national manufacturer, clearly determine who will be responsible for corrections of technical problems. I conducted an assessment for a state college where most of the emergency phones were inoperable. The campus security director had been bounced back and forth between the manufacturer and the local vendor who installed the system for more than a year. While the vendors assigned blame to each other, her campus was exposed to civil liability and more importantly, students and staff were less safe.

6. Selecting campus safety technologies that work well with other systems and approaches is also important. We often see situations where a variety of safety technologies have been implemented in piecemeal fashion. This is a situation that is more prone to occur when people overreact to terrifying but rare events. A qualified integrator can be invaluable in preventing this.

7. Major changes in campus safety technology should be based on a comprehensive campus safety assessment process. An appropriate process is one that is conducted by personnel who are properly trained, vendor-neutral and who use the all-hazards approach. Assessments that are focused primarily on major incidents of violence result in far less effective strategies and can cause increased exposure to civil liability. Whether in-house personnel, government agency personnel or private vendors conduct assessments is not as important as the approach that is utilized. Typically, a properly conducted external assessment is more than cost-effective if major upgrades are anticipated.

I have seen many instances wherein campus officials have saved millions of dollars because they conducted a proper assessment. Conversely, I have seen numerous tragic situations where lives have been lost, campus officials have been successfully litigated and/or millions of dollars have been frittered away on poorly implemented safety technology approaches. A thoughtful approach that balances statistical risks with a proper evaluation process is a viable success strategy.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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