Gunshot Detection That Goes Beyond the Sensors

Aug. 8, 2023
Programs against gun violence help schools with tech funding and improve emergency response to active shooter events

Gunshot detection technology has made significant advancements since its inception on the battlefield, where it was employed to pinpoint sniper fire during active military combat. Also utilized as a policing tool, this technology has assisted law enforcement officers in swiftly responding to gun violence incidents in urban areas. And while the military system is widely recognized for its life-saving capabilities, policing systems have faced criticism for a high rate of false alerts and potential privacy infringements caused by the external transmission of incident audio.

Regardless of its successes or controversies, these systems have revealed that indoor gunshot detection poses a complex challenge that demands enhanced machine learning algorithms in conjunction with two-factor acoustic and infrared gunfire flash validation technologies. This approach provides a marked improvement over acoustic-based systems that depend solely on sound, spawning recent efforts to refine the military system (Boomerang) for indoor environments. Developers effectively found that by fusing advanced acoustic detection algorithms with infrared flash sensing, the necessity for line of sight between the firearm and the sensor is eliminated, significantly increasing detection accuracy and reducing the false alert rate. Ultimately, this innovation allows for the real-time automation of emergency alerts, where mere seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

Yet as the rash of active shooters continues to intensify across the country in communities of all sizes and in venues like schools and churches that were once thought to be safe havens, the ability to mitigate such events requires an even more holistic approach to solving this problem. Beyond delivering a sound technical system, manufacturers must focus on providing a solution that addresses the needs of all stakeholders working on the front lines of mitigating gun violence. Today’s security professionals must consider financial, privacy, technical obsolescence, and cost of ownership issues when recommending new security technologies. Where many active shooter incidents have targeted schools, providing grants assistance to qualified educational institutions is something we can do as a community to ensure that funding is not a barrier to securing our schools against a very real threat.

Supplementary partnerships with the law enforcement community and government agencies like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ultimately help gunshot detection manufacturers to develop products and services that can better serve first responders to gun violence and active shooter incidents. This includes a focused effort on improving emergency response times by building a pathway to send shot alerts directly to PSAPs, the addition of a pro-bono grants assistance program to help organizations obtain gunshot detection technology, and the development of additional tools and resources to deliver a more streamlined, cost-effective service to their customers.

Gunshot Detection’s Connection to the PSAP

Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) play a critical role in emergency response systems, ensuring that citizens receive swift assistance in life-threatening situations. As specialized facilities, PSAPs function as the primary call centers for receiving 911 calls and orchestrating the dispatch of emergency services such as police, fire, and emergency medical assistance. The importance of their role in public safety cannot be overstated.

Statistical analyses of 911 calls to PSAPs reveal interesting trends in the types of alarms reported. According to the National 911 Program and National Emergency Number Association (NENA), approximately 240 million calls are made to 911 each year in the United States. It’s important to note that the percentage of calls from misdials, pocket dials, or false alarms constitutes a substantial number, varying widely across jurisdictions from 10% to as high as 50%. This trend underlines the need for ongoing public education to prevent accidental calls, ensuring that valuable PSAP resources are reserved for genuine emergencies. It also means that alarm companies ensure that systems passing data through to PSAPs are accurate and not contributing to false alarms. Gunshot detection manufacturers have a great responsibility to ensure technology accuracy and efficiency so we can continue to gain acceptance among law enforcement and so they can be confident in their ability to respond based on the data we feed them.

As automated 911 calls become increasingly integrated with gunshot detection systems, it is imperative to minimize false alerts to prevent unwarranted panic and avoid the misallocation of precious emergency resources. In this context, maintaining a low false alert rate is arguably more crucial than achieving high detection rates, as it fosters trust in the system. An elevated frequency of false alarms can result in desensitization—causing individuals to dismiss legitimate alerts as just 'another false alarm.' Introducing a gunshot detection system prone to false alerts essentially creates a 'self-swatting' issue, akin to the false active shooter calls made to 911 in schools and workplaces nationwide. Therefore, organizations should focus on selecting a gunshot detection system that balances precise detection with an exceptionally low false alert rate, guaranteeing robust security measures and preserving the system's credibility.

E911, or Enhanced 911, is an advanced emergency calling system that was designed to improve the efficiency of public safety and the response capabilities of emergency services. This system automatically provides the emergency dispatcher or the PSAP with the caller’s location and phone number, enabling emergency service providers to locate and assist the caller more quickly than a 911 call. While the system is continuously being updated and improved, some challenges remain. Traditional E911 systems with basic GPS or cell tower triangulation are much less precise in determining locations indoors or within multi-story buildings, such as specifying the floor or apartment number.

Law Enforcement’s response to active shooter calls faces a similar issue when it comes to finding the threat location within a building, which is one of the primary benefits indoor gunshot detection systems provide. Sensors are strategically placed throughout a building with their location mapped and clear nomenclature is tagged so each sensor reports its location, such as “cafeteria” or “lobby.” This information is parsed out through emergency communication pathways like SMS text or mass notification systems.

 New, ground-breaking gunshot detection solutions have taken this capability further to help this information get directly to PSAPs so responding officers receive this information from dispatchers, giving them critical additional context about the threat they are facing and the location of the active threat within the building. Such solutions work by routing alerts directly to the PSAP, while simultaneously, trained calling agents dial through to 911, providing the dispatcher with the context they need to communicate with responding officers as the incident unfolds effectively. Data such as the number of consecutive shots fired, a GPS map of the location and group SMS communications are pushed to the PSAP operator, instantly enhancing situational awareness without requiring those under stress to communicate accurately. This information is delivered in real-time to ensure that first responders have the most detailed and updated information available to help mitigate the threat before it escalates further and improve outcomes in active shooter incidents.

The Challenge of Funding Security Systems

Ensuring the safety and security of students, staff, and school property has become a paramount concern for educational institutions in recent years. The increasing frequency of tragic events like school shootings and other safety threats underscores the critical need for comprehensive security systems. The economic reality is that schools often struggle with limited budgets that necessitate difficult choices around resource allocation. Unfortunately, this means that security upgrades can take a back seat to more immediate concerns such as staffing, technology, and infrastructure maintenance, even though enhancing security measures could play a crucial role in prevention and response during emergencies.

The grant funding process can be challenging for all organizations seeking financial support to acquire security equipment. Navigating through the complexities of grant applications, eligibility criteria, and submission deadlines often becomes an overwhelming experience for organizations. This is particularly true for small businesses or non-profits, which often lack dedicated personnel for managing grant-seeking tasks. Furthermore, competition for limited funds can be intense, making it difficult for deserving organizations to secure the necessary support. Additionally, the stringent requirements for reports and ongoing compliance can be a significant burden on these industries. As a result, many organizations struggle to access essential funds that could significantly enhance their security measures and overall safety.

Encouragingly, some state and federal grant programs are now targeting improvements to school security systems, making it easier for schools to access funding for these important investments. Programs such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Nonprofit Security Grant Program and the U.S. Department of Education’s STOP School Violence grant program represent valuable opportunities for schools to secure the necessary funding for security system upgrades.

Still, more must be done to provide schools with the financial support they need to effectively protect their communities. It is paramount for local, state, and federal governments to continue exploring and expanding funding programs, as well as partnering with the private sector to develop innovative security solutions that address budgetary constraints. Additionally, raising awareness about the current state of school security can generate public support, leading to grassroots advocacy and possibly increasing available funding.

Meanwhile, manufacturers can step up to the table and offer their support to help these disadvantaged communities obtain much-needed security equipment. A recently launched initiative was brought about to provide assistance from professional grant writers who can help qualified organizations acquire the funding they need to help combat the active shooter endemic by installing gunshot detection. This program is provided by elite gunshot detection manufacturers to qualified end users at no additional cost under the premise that all organizations should have equal access to advanced security technology like gunshot detection. Since launching the program, dozens of prospective end users have been provided with help to qualify for funding, find funding that fits their particular circumstances, help them write the grant, and coach through every step of the process.

Overall, ensuring that our educational institutions are safe and secure for all should be a shared priority for stakeholders at every level. Our children's future depends on it.

About the author: Stephen Carney was recently named President of Shooter Detection Systems. Carney brings over 15 years of experience in the physical security industry to SDS. Prior to his Global Product Management role at HID Global, he oversaw product management and marketing for the world’s largest access control supplier, the Physical Access Control Solutions Business Area (PACS) at HID. Carney also held the position of Senior Director for Video Surveillance, Integration Solutions, and Cybersecurity at Tyco Security Products and Johnson Controls, spending ten years specializing in video surveillance. Before his physical security career, Carney served as a product manager in the lottery industry and as a trial attorney. A member of the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island bars, he specialized in complex commercial litigation and construction law. Carney graduated Cum Laude from Pace University School of Law and began his career as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, completing two combat tours in the Middle East as a Platoon Leader and Patriot Missile Operator.

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