5 Lessons on upgrading
Feb 1, 2004 12:00 PM
TESS Goes to School
Arming Washoe County School Police With Advanced Communication Capabilities
By CORRINA STELLITANO
A far cry from the one-room schoolhouse, the Washoe County School District in Nevada extends across an area larger than the state of Delaware. It stretches from the California border to the Oregon border, encompassing Reno, Lake Tahoe, and the Sierra mountain range. The district is responsible for 65,000 students, 6,500 employees, and is composed of 96 facilities, including 88 elementary, middle and high schools, and various administrative buildings.
The Washoe County School District is protected by its own police force, with 31 sworn officers and two dispatchers. Although the force only operates from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., the threats it faces are similar to the crimes fought by many municipal police forces, School Police Lieutenant Dale Richardson says.
To protect its students, the police force relies on modern technological tools. Some schools are monitored by digital or analog CCTV. For the last five years, the officers have used Nextel Direct Connect; last summer, they also began communicating by 800mhz trunk radio. Soon their vehicles will be equipped with AT&T wireless data-modem cards through San Diego-based Voyager Systems, allowing them to research warrants through state and national databases.
Until September 2003, however, this vast school district communicated using a 20-year-old telephone system. For the proactive Washoe County School Police force, the aging system was a considerable limitation.
"We had a 20-year-old system. We didn't have any idea a 911 call had been placed from one of our schools until the local police department called us," Richardson explains. "Now, we're actually joining the 21st century."
To renovate its antiquated system, the Washoe County school district enlisted the help of New York City-based XTEND Communications Corp.
Brahim Atlagh, a project engineer and implementation analyst for XTEND, supervised the Washoe County installation. "[The district] needed to be able to send enhanced information about 911 calls from any location within Washoe County, and they needed to be notified every time so they could be the first responder on every 911 call made from one of their schools," he says.
To satisfy the needs of school systems like Washoe County's, XTEND has combined two of its PC-based tools to create a system designed specifically for educational facilities. TESS, or Telecommunications Enhancing School Safety, couples the emergency notification system EnterpriseAlert with the call center solution pc/psap.
"Our TESS system is a marriage of two areas of our expertise," explains Gerard Shallo, XTEND's product line manager. "On one end, you have the requirement for Washoe County's school safety officials on-site to be immediately notified of an impending situation. We also must provide a vehicle with which Washoe County School District can update the public Automatic Location Information (ALI) database.
"At the other end of the call, you have emergency call takers and dispatchers who need to be equipped with the tools to receive the call and take care of the victim caller."
Enterprise Alert is a PC-based solution that allows the school district's private branch exchange (PBX) to communicate with the Public E911 network. When a 911 call is made from a school phone, Enterprise Alert provides information such as the caller's phone number or Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and detailed location information or Automatic Location Identification (ALI) to the emergency call taker. This information is accurate down to the exact classroom number.
A primary capability of the Enterprise Alert system ¡ª providing enhanced information to the national 911 system ¡ª was crucial for Washoe County. When a 911 call is placed, a dispatcher is typically able to view both the location and phone number of the caller. However, this information is generally derived from the local telephone company's billing records.
When a 911 call is made by someone in a large building or campus environment from behind a PBX, the dispatcher will typically see only the main billing phone number and address for the facility. Depending on the size of the facility, the billing address could be miles from the exact location of the caller. As a result, the call could be routed to the wrong emergency call center and this incorrect information could also be transmitted to police, fire and EMS responders. If the caller is unable to communicate ¡ª such as when the victim faints or is choking ¡ª the dispatcher can't determine the caller's actual location and the entire premises must be sealed.
The Washoe County School District operates six PBXs. Without the Enterprise Alert system, responders would only receive the main street address of the school from which the 911 call originated, potentially delaying life-saving responders.
XTEND's pc/psap enables Washoe County School Police dispatchers to use their PCs (in this case, Dell PCs operating on Microsoft Windows 2000) as ANI/ALI controllers, enabling them to view the exact location and callback number of each 911 call. In addition, the dispatcher can listen in as the caller speaks with the emergency call taker at the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP).
The monitoring capability offered by pc/psap is an essential portion of TESS, Richardson says. "When a 911 call comes in, we can listen but not interact. But, before that local agency can call us, we can already have units rolling."
Because officers patrol every school in the district, knowing about the 911 calls as they happen can greatly affect response times, Richardson says. In many cases, the time of response can shrink from five minutes to only one minute.
Listening in also helps school personnel differentiate among dangerous incidents, for example, a student with chest pains vs. a student with a gun. Sometimes the necessary reaction can be very different: in one case, school officials would rush toward the student, while in the other case they might isolate him.
Although the district has not had a serious crisis since incorporating TESS, the system has helped in non-life-threatening emergencies. In one case, a warehouse worker fell and broke his arm. "We were able to intercept the 911 call, and before Reno could call us and dispatch fire and medical, we already had officers on the scene," Richardson recalls.
In addition to connecting the entire Washoe County school district with public emergency resources, the TESS system allows the district to use certain features during internal emergencies. Anyone on school grounds can directly contact the Washoe school police by dialing *1.
Five school and administrative facilities are currently using the TESS system; more buildings are expected to join the network this year. To organize the wealth of information about where each phone is located and who occupies which classroom, Washoe County's TESS system uses a Microsoft SQL database.
When information changes, school officials update their Microsoft SQL database allowing XTEND to update its database. School officials have also been trained to use the XTEND application to send the new information to the PS/ALI database operated by the local telephone company. The school district is required to use a constantly changing 6-digit password to access the highly secure public database, which controls the information the 911 dispatcher receives.
Making TESS Safe and Friendly
TESS product planners considered both public safety and ease of use. The Dell PCs Washoe County uses are backed up with a RAID 5 Dell server. Mirrored drives provide replication in case of server failure.
Extensive testing was necessary as well; administrating an entire school system's access to 911 emergency services is a weighty responsibility.
"We do a lot of monitoring of the 911 trunks and phone lines, and we also provide e-mail notifications of any system failures," Atlagh says. "And in the worst case scenario, if XTEND is completely down, the customer would have the same communication capabilities they had before XTEND came on board."
The TESS-enabled PCs do offer additional capabilities for users, including voice recording and quick playback, quick dial and transfer, call history and premises history (an audit of past 911 calls from this location), and GIS integration.
Planned extensions to the TESS product already in development include the ability to record and trace bomb threat calls and provide teachers with a "teacher needs help" button that they can carry with them like a garage door opener.
Basing the main system components on products available on the general market was important to XTEND, Atlagh explains. "We use all commercially available hardware, nothing proprietary."
With the TESS system, Washoe County School Police have the security of knowing that when emergencies do occur, they have the tools to be first on the scene.