Ken Hamwey, Bellingham Bulletin

Safety has always been a high priority at all five of Bellingham’s schools, but new life-saving technology installed last month takes school safety to a new level.

The town’s school and police officials have teamed up with a Danvers, MA, company (IN FORCE911) to implement its desktop and mobile application that’s designed to significantly reduce police response time to a critical event at a school and to address any communication barriers that might exist during active-shooting situations.

The software enables school staff to launch an alert in 12 seconds or less from their desktop or mobile device (cell phone, iPad, Chromebook) instead of taking several minutes with the 911 system. The alert is sent directly to the police dispatch center, police cruisers’ laptops and officers’ cell phones, providing them with specific information, including the room of origin.

Additionally, it opens a two-way dialogue, in real-time, allowing staff to communicate details of the threat to first responders. Also, first responders are provided access to floor plans, internet-based camera feeds and other emergency detailed information to help them plan the best course of action.

“All school staff personnel will have the app, and that includes teachers, secretaries, aides, custodians and cafeteria workers,” said School Superintendent Peter Marano (pictured left). “The app is being employed to provide real-time information to first responders to mitigate the loss of life during a crisis.”

Both Marano and Police Chief Gerry Daigle emphasize that they “want officers to have the most updated technology to deal with any critical incidents.” About 400 school employees will have the app, and the police department will need only 12 (11 for vehicles and one for a dispatcher).

Daigle points out that the new technology has definite advantages. “It enables responders to better focus on an isolated area,” he said. “The response time also is quicker and there’s more real-time information. Overall, it increases the safety level for officers and school personnel because it increases first responders’ knowledge of how many individuals are involved.”

Here’s an example, detailed by Marano, of how the software works:

“A teacher initiates an alert on a mobile device that’s sent to all of that school’s staff, the school administration, the police dispatcher and the cruisers. Police and emergency personnel respond quickly to the location because the software will reveal the specific area. The teacher can text officers with updates, like what an assailant is wearing, what his location is and what weapons he may have. That’s the chat dialogue. Police already have a floor plan in the app for all schools, and at the high school and the middle school there are cameras that monitor situations indoors or outdoors. In an emergency, first responders can access the live feed of what’s transpiring in the incident.”

Chief Daigle (pictured right) said that response time to a 911 call takes about 1 1/2 minutes. The IN FORCE911 app would take 12 seconds or less. Marano notes that if an alert went out by accident, the person causing that situation could cancel the warning by depressing a different button.

The genesis of Bellingham’s acquiring this technology, which costs $11,000 annually, began when Marano attended a School Resource Officers conference in Norwood where companies displayed a variety of the latest safety options. “What I liked about the IN FORCE911 technology was the way it complements and fits our ALICE protocol (alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate). The IN FORCE911 app takes care of the alert and informs components of ALICE. It’s real-time info that’s provided quickly and it’s easy for teachers to initiate an alert.”

Currently, Bellingham has two school resource officers for the district, and the new technology doesn’t alter their roles. “If they’re in one of the buildings where an alert is initiated, they likely will be the first responders,” Daigle said. “This is another tool for them to do their job effectively. Any measures that we add for school safety are a welcomed addition.”

Training for school staff and police concluded last month in brief sessions. “We’ll do two test runs per year, and there’ll be actual practice in advance of an incident,” Marano said. “I liked the IN FORCE911 system over other technology I saw because it gives us added tools to keep staff (400) and students (2,200) safe in the event of a critical incident. And it keeps first responders fully informed.”

According to an In Force Technology, LLC press release, 60 communities in Massachusetts use its product, and its technology has been installed in 13 states. The release also notes that IN FORCE911 has been featured by a variety of news outlets that include WBZ Boston, 7 News Boston, Fox 25 Boston and the Boston Herald.

“We recognize the need to reduce police response time to mitigate the loss of lives during a crisis,” said In Force Technology President & CEO Brandon Flanagan. “We also know that increasing communication between those experiencing the threat and law enforcement can dramatically shorten the duration of an attack.” 

There have been 22 school shootings so far in the United States. Hopefully, any future attempts will be thwarted so that a peaceful atmosphere can pervade all schools in the country. Bellingham is taking a proactive approach to ensure that school safety remains a high priority and that, whenever possible, it’s taken to a higher level.