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Panic Button: Using Technology to Improve Response to Active Shooters and other Crises

Author: Todd Piett, ENP, Rave Mobile Safety

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-12-07
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The close coordination between dispatch and first responders is especially critical during active shooter incidents. The more data the dispatcher can relate from callers on the scene, the safer and more coordinated the law enforcement response can be made.

Unfortunately, the pace of active shooter incidents continues to accelerate nationally.  In addition to the proliferation of “lone wolf” type incidents, we are now faced with a growing threat of coordinated terrorist activities.  The major individual active shooter response strategies - “Run. Hide. Fight,” “Avoid-Deny-Defend,” “The 4-A’s,” “ALICE” or the “Window of Life” - all contain the same essential elements: Avoid conflict, notify others, and protect yourself.  How does 9-1-1 fit within these response frameworks, and how can technology help speed the response and minimize casualties?

According to a 2012 NYPD study, only 16 percent of the 230 active shooter incidents reviewed ended without applied force – either by law enforcement, security, bystanders, or the attacker. That is to say, until someone – law enforcement officer or otherwise – confronts or challenges the shooter, the attack will continue. By reducing the notification time of bystanders on scene and responding police officers, the attacker has a smaller window to kill and inflict injury.  Additional research from both the FBI and NYPD further points out that police arrive on the scene while the incident is still underway between 30 and 50 percent of the time.  And while we tend to think of school incidents, workplace incidents actually outnumber those occurring on school campuses. 

The body of research and experience points to several key goals: 1) speed the time to dispatch by connecting the caller directly to the local public safety answering point (PSAP), providing as much visibility into the situation as possible; 2) ensure that personnel and bystanders on-site are immediately notified, enabling them to react swiftly and appropriately; 3) ensure consistent and exercised processes across all entities involved in the response – the worst time to have to remember and implement a seldom used or rehearsed critical process is during the confusion of a life threatening event; and, 4) carefully coordinate emergency procedures and planning with the local PSAP(s), responders and on-site personnel – while left out of the process far too often, 9-1-1 is truly incident command for the short duration of the active portion of these incidents.


Panic Button Technology & Active Shooter Response

Over the years, panic buttons have evolved with technology.  Early versions behaved much like fire alarms – users pressed a button affixed to a wall, and an alarm sounded either in an administrator’s office, a third-party monitoring center, or in the PSAP.  The first hurdle to overcome is the lack of portability of these types of buttons, which lead to the advent of pendant-style panic buttons.  Usually operating off low power radios deployed in the building, users pressed a button on a pendant and an alarm sounded in the appropriate office. 

Eventually, the flaw in having “middle men” in the emergency notification process became evident.  Whether a third party monitoring center added an unnecessary step in the response process, or administrators who were expected to triage and report on an emergency with which they may or may not be actively involved, precious time was lost.  When the alarm call eventually made it to the PSAP, it arrived with little or no context.  Each response had to be treated the same, without any ability to interrogate callers and gather situational intelligence.  Additionally, even though many of these processes were designed around the most horrific of events – armed robberies and active shooters – the reality is that those incidents make up a very small percentage of daily emergencies at schools and businesses so systems sat unused and untested, until users were expected to remember them in the most harrowing of scenarios.

The phone app component of a next-generation panic button device, such as this one on left from Rave Mobile Safety, not only speed dials 9-1-1, creating a standard audio connection with the caller, but through Rave’s Smart911 and Smart911Facility it also provides critical situational information such as the caller’s indoor location, floor plans, key contacts, emergency plans, directly on the call taker’s desktop. Additionally, registered family members can be notified that a child or other member's phone has called 9-1-1.

The latest wave of panic button technologies take advantage of core capabilities of today’s ubiquitous smart phones, such as location-based services, texting, multimedia and voice service.  Much more than just an app on a smartphone, these solutions have the ability to create a communication bridge between the victim or initial reporter of the incident, responders and on-site personnel such as school resource officers, security officers, and administrators, and provide critical situational awareness about the facility to first responders. For example, the phone app component of a next-generation panic button device speed dials 9-1-1, creating a standard audio connection with the caller, while the app vendor’s system also provides critical situational information such as the caller’s indoor location, floor plans, key contacts, and emergency plans directly on the calltaker’s desktop. Simultaneously, the app determines the user’s location and, if indicated, delivers an immediate notification to other employees on scene. Additionally, the call taker is able to communicate in a one-to-many manner, sending messages directly to designated on-site personnel, in order to provide key updates and instructions without having to search through a phone book and hope someone is able to answer the administrative line.   


Milford, Mass. Police Department

Police Chief Tom O'Loughlin of Milford, Mass. summed up the value of next-generation panic button solutions saying, "[Our solution] provides a critical link between the communications center, school resource officers, school administrators and responders. It will save time in a response, give better situational awareness, and with the immediate availability of detailed caller location, floor plans, exit details and more, it will enable more precise and effective on-site action."


Life Saved: Blytheville, Ark. School District

Panic buttons should address the entire spectrum of emergencies by allowing the caller to specify the incident type and also communicate verbally (when possible) with the telecommunicator.  Within just a few days of a coordinated deployment of our Panic Button involving the Blytheville (AR) School District, the solution was instrumental in speeding the response to a teacher in diabetic crisis by simultaneously alerting 9-1-1 and on-site medical help. “It saved a person’s life,” said Superintendent Richard Atwill. 


While technology is never the entire answer, when properly employed and integrated into response processes, panic button applications leveraging the unique capabilities of mobile phones have proven to help save time and lives and should be considered as part of any holistic crisis response planning.


Todd Piett, ENP, is the chief product officer of Rave Mobile Safety, a leading provider of safety software including Smart911 which is used by more than 1,000 communities in 35 states and Rave Alert which provides emergency text notifications for nearly 40 percent of the U.S. higher education system. Todd is a Board member of the NG9-1-1 Institute, a member of APCO’s Emerging Technology Committee, and participates in various NENA working groups related to NG9-11.

For more information on Rave Mobile Safety's Panic Button or other products, see



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