In Penn., Panic Alarms Sought for County Schools

Silent panic alarms will be installed in each of the 660 public, private, parochial and nursery schools in Montgomery County in response to the Amish school shootings in Lancaster County earlier this month.

"With the events that occurred in the Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County as well as other recent horrific events in schools throughout our nation, the board of commissioners examined what steps we could take to protect our most precious commodity, our children," Montgomery County Commissioner Chairman Thomas Jay Ellis said in announcing the new security measures Thursday in Norristown.

Ten girls, five of whom died, were shot in the Amish schoolhouse on Oct. 2.

The county plans to have the alarms installed by the start of the next school year at a cost of less than $1 million, although county officials conceded many details still have to be worked out that could affect the price.

The alarms will allow school personnel to push a button, sending a signal via the Internet directly to the county's 911 emergency dispatch center, which would send police immediately to the school.

That way, school personnel would not have to pick up a telephone, dial 911 and talk out loud. And unlike traditional alarm systems, the signal won't go first to a private alarm company before it's relayed to the dispatch center. Similar panic buttons can be found in banks and district justice offices.

The idea for the panic alarms grew out of conversations between the commissioners and county Public Safety Department last week, Ellis said.

"With increasing school violence, witnessed by the recent tragedy in Lancaster County, school personnel need tools to protect our over 140,000 Montgomery County students and preschoolers," Commissioner Ruth S. Damsker said.

Ellis said the panic buttons will not solve the problems of school violence "but will give us more time, should such an event occur -- more time for our emergency personnel to respond and hopefully save lives."

Initial estimates show that it will cost about $1,000 per school to wire the alarms in each of the county's 660 schools, officials said.

More money will be spent on engineering. Sean Petty, an engineer who also is deputy director of public safety for the county, will be doing initial engineering for the program. Costs could increase if outsourcing any parts of the program is necessary, he said.

The county estimated the program would cost about 88 cents per county resident, or $2 in property tax for a home assessed at the countywide average of $167,000.

That is for the basic package, which includes a computer unit and a panic button. If more buttons are needed for a large school, for example, or if portable panic buttons or any other upgrades are added, that could cost more, according to Petty.

Ellis said the county was committed to paying for the basic program and "other upgrades can be looked at."

State and federal grants for reimbursement will be pursued later.

"This is too important a project to wait while we're seeking state and federal funding and we will not place another unfunded mandate on the school system," Ellis said.

The county is calling the system the Countywide Law Enforcement Alerting and Safety System (CLASS). CLASS will be developed with the intention of expanding its capabilities in the future to include things such as wireless transmitters that principals or administrators could wear on their bodies.

It also may be developed into a direct, two-way communication system that will allow the county's emergency dispatch center to communicate with schools about impending crises.

Rachel Holler, principal of Stewart Middle School in Norristown, said her school has several measures in place to ensure student safety.

"It's nice to know there'll be another means of getting help if we need it," Holler said.

County Public Safety Director Thomas M. Sullivan said committees would be formed consisting of school district officials and police chiefs to decide how exactly panic button alerts should be handled.

Upper Gwynedd Police Chief Robert Freed said police already have protocols in place regarding response to bank silent alarms. Similar protocols would have to be established for response to schools.

"This is cutting-edge," Freed said.

Lansdale Borough Police Chief Joe McGuriman said the first step would be for "numerous" officers to respond to a silent alarm. Beyond that, some method would have to be established for the police to figure out exactly what was going on in the school.

"It's a brand new program," McGuriman said. "We're being told as you're being told."

Diane Marczely Gimpel is a freelance writer.