Schools test gunfire-locator system

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In the evolving effort to protect U.S. campuses from mass shootings, first came the metal detectors, then video surveillance and a radical change in police tactics to rush the attacker.

Now, police and school officials are testing technology that could help pinpoint the location of gunfire inside schools and other buildings to hasten law enforcement response.

The technology, which many cities now use outside in crime-ridden neighborhoods to assist police, is being adapted for indoor use.

Pilot projects are underway in two school systems, but the first fully functioning interior gunfire-detection system is expected to go live later this year at the Savannah, Ga., College of Art and Design.

John Buckovich, the school’s chief of public safety, said during a meeting last week of police chiefs in Orlando that, while there has never been a mass campus shooting incident involving the institution of 12,000 students, the strategy seemed a logical extension of its security program.

Since 26 students and administrators were fatally wounded in a 2012 attack at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., there have been at least a half dozen other deadly campus shootings in the U.S. Among the most recent: three high school students were fatally wounded last month at a Washington state high school where the shooter, a fellow student, later killed himself.

“If we can provide multiple layers of protection for our campus, we’ll do it,” Buckovich said. “The implementation … is not the result of a single even, but has been an extensive assessment dating back two years.”

The school safety chief said 2 square miles of the Savannah campus already are covered outside by the gunfire-detection system, ShotSpotter. The outside system uses acoustic sensors to trace the location of gunfire in an attempt to hasten police response.

In the past 15 years, the outside technology has been used in about 85 cities, said Ralph Clark, ShotSpotter’s chief executive officer. He said indoor use, which relies additionally on sound-pressure readings to help distinguish actual gunfire from such things as the slam of a locker door or books slapping atop a classroom desk, has only been developed in the past 18 months. (For an average elementary school, kindergarten through eighth grade, the cost of installing such a system would run about $50,000.)

Clark said the sensors can “very precisely” determine where the gunfire is coming from, helping to quickly direct resources to confront the threat.

“In these cases, minutes and seconds really do matter,” Clark said.

Following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, which left 13 dead, law enforcement officials nationwide moved to change a longtime active shooter strategy, urging first responding officers to immediately seek out and confront the threat rather than wait for back-up.

The goal now is to take out the shooter and minimize additional casualties.

South Bend, Ind., police Chief Ronald Teachman said gunfire location technology could be invaluable in immediately directing officers to the actual threat.

“It should be part of the building codes going forward,” Teachman said, adding that movie theaters, shopping malls and other potential indoor targets could also benefit. “These attacks are happening with such consistency that it is likely to happen in your community.”

Terry Nichols, assistant director of Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training at Texas State University, said the indoor application of the technology is very promising, though research is needed to better define the potential benefit.

“Research could tell us how fast the response actually is if we detect gunfire in Rooms 1, 21 or 19,” Nichols said. “In addition to predicting how quickly we could stop the threat, perhaps more importantly we could determine the increasing speed with which first responders are getting to the wounded and getting them critical care to increase survival.”

In Camden, N.J., three-quarters of the city’s 9 square miles are covered with outside gunfire-location technology. And Camden County police Chief Scott Thomson said preliminary discussions have taken place to move the system inside.

In most cases, Thomson said, the existing outside technology alerts police to the location and number of shots before a person can dial 911.

“You are talking about a matter of seconds and an officer knows where to go,” Thomson said. “When you talk about combining this technology with digital access to building floor plans, you are talking about a tremendous tactical advantage.”