Public Safety & Homeland Security

School Administrators Unaware of Enhanced 911 Solutions, Survey Finds

Successful enhanced 911 system implementation takes a team approach.

by Corey McKenna / June 6, 2011
EM May/June 2010 mag art

A recent survey of school administrators and IT directors revealed a lack of awareness of the need for enhanced 911 (E911) systems in schools. In the survey of 100 K-12 and university administrators and IT directors, 40 respondents said their school is currently using an E911 system. Such a system allows dispatchers to trace the exact location of a call to direct emergency responders to a person in need. 

Eighty-three respondents reported that safety was important to them and yet 27 selected the answer “My organization doesn’t have a need at this time.” Forty-five respondents said they were unaware of a solution. Of the one-third of respondents who reported being aware of the liability schools face for not having an enhanced 911 system in place, 70 percent were at least somewhat concerned. Just 22 respondents reported that they had done something to limit the liability their organization might face due to the E911 capabilities of their telephone system. Of those who hadn’t taken any action, 57 percent were not sure what to do.

“Whether or not people use 911 could be a function of how they answered or saw the question,” said Andre Le Duc, emergency management coordinator for the University of Oregon. “But a lot of campuses, when they think about a comprehensive emergency management communication protocol, they’re thinking to the Clery Act and they’re thinking to the new standards around text notification. Those are the things that they own and directly manage and would be in their plan, whereas 911 is an external party that all campuses are generally partners with but don’t have ownership of.”

The No. 1 takeaway from the survey, according to Le Duc, is that system implementations need to be a team effort. “You not only need to have your [information services] representatives there, you also need to have emergency management/business continuity so that you’re looking at it from all angles,” he said. “So that we’re thinking through if we make this upgrade or we make this change on the technology side, are we losing anything or have we addressed all integration to make sure that we still have a functioning system.”

Such thinking takes into consideration both sides of a response, Le Duc said. On one side, if someone calls 911 can they expect that an emergency responder will be able to reach them. And on the other side, will the dispatcher know where the caller is located so responders can find the caller and provide assistance?

Another explanation for the lack of awareness is people may assume that calling 911 from a school or office building works the same as calling from home, according to Thomas Beck, director of business development for Teo, the E911 systems provider that commissioned the survey.

There’s also a lack of a legislative requirement for such systems. According to the National Emergency Number Association, 16 states have legislation requiring multiline telephone systems phone-based location information. Michigan is considering legislation, while the California Public Utilities Commission is considering a regulation that would set E911 requirements for multiline telephone systems. Neither federal law nor FCC regulations require the establishment of E911 systems for such systems. 

Observers say the real stick is in the hands of the courts. “The school would have a duty to provide adequate notification of an emergency, so the issue would be if the system they had in place was not a reasonable notification system, then someone could make the argument that they breached that duty,” said George Pearce, a partner in the law firm Holland and Knight. “I think the duty is probably enhanced due to the fact that a lot of government buildings, a lot of privately owned buildings, have chosen to install this system and a lot of state laws require it.”

According to the survey, 19 percent of respondents who said they hadn’t taken any action to limit their liability cited cost as the reason. According to Beck, installation of a typical districtwide system costs about $5 per phone extension, or between $10,000 and $25,000.

In the current fiscal climate, a winning strategy may be to incorporate an E911 system into planned phone system upgrades. The University of Oregon is working on adding location information to phones around its campus as part of a system upgrade. The university’s geocoding effort began in 2007 when officials realized that a call passed from the university to the county showed up in the computer-aided dispatch system as a single address for an entire campus. “That was enough to put the wheels in motion to get it down to better accuracy to at least be able to provide a building number,” Le Duc said. “As we made technology changes, we had to make sure that in improving our communications systems, meaning phone systems, all the people that are responsible for first response didn’t lose anything in that process.”

In 2007, the university began upgrading its phone system and geocoding phone extensions and data connections on a map of the campus that will eventually include information on each room such as who occupies it, whether it’s used for research or instruction, and if it contains hazardous materials or sensitive information.

Other school systems also are working to update their phone systems. The Palm Beach County, Fla., School District — serving 176,000 students in all grades — took advantage of a $10 million upgrade to add E911 capability to its phone system in 2005. “Elementary schools were connected to the PBX systems of the nearest high school,” said  Bruce Walsh, communications network supervisor for the school district, in a case study. “Because the elementary schools receive their dial tone through the high school, if someone calls 911, it is the high school address that shows up on the dispatcher’s screen. That extra step or two might be significant during an actual emergency.”