After 28 years in law enforcement, Col. Michael Snyders was preparing to retire in 2010, but he wasn’t permitted to so before one last test of mettle. Dispatch informed Snyders one day of an overturned semi-trailer truck just five miles from his location on Interstate 55 outside Springfield, Ill. The dispatcher reported no injuries, just lane blockage – not the most exciting call in the world, but Snyders figured he would go help direct traffic since it was nearby. When he arrived, the scene was different than what dispatch had described. Snyders saw that the overturned semi-trailer truck was actually a gasoline tanker that was gushing fuel. Power lines dangled onto the wreckage. The report of no injuries was also inaccurate. The truck had collided with another vehicle and the truck’s driver was badly hurt and screaming for help from inside the cab.

It was 30 minutes before volunteer firefighters made it to the scene, Snyders said. The truck’s driver died. Illinois State Police later discovered that while Snyders had been radioing for help, six officers from various other law enforcement agencies had been driving by on Interstate 55, just one mile away, but none came to help because they were operating on different radio frequencies and did not hear his call. This type of scenario is common in law enforcement and is the reason the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is working to create a unified nationwide first responder communications network. It’s also why Snyders is helping to create mobile apps that could increase situational awareness and decrease response time for police officers in the event of school shootings.

The Hero911 app, released in late November, is being adopted quickly, Snyders said, and officers in 22 states and six federal agencies have signed on to the Hero Network so far. In addition, more than 100 officers continue to join each day. Hero911 is focused on creating a law enforcement-only social network that will allow officers to respond quickly in the event of a school shooting. The app is the first piece of the Hero Network, a component of the Social Protection Network Foundation of which Snyders is president. Just as with Snyders’ overturned tanker story, a future school shooting could occur while nearby law enforcement officers remain oblivious to the incident. This app aims to remedy that.

Hero911, used by law enforcement, will work with another app called SchoolGuard, which will be used by teachers and school officials. In the event of a school shooting, a teacher would activate the SchoolGuard app, which does three things simultaneously: The app calls 911. It notifies all other teachers in the school who use the app that a shooting is under way. The core functionality of the app is that it would also notify Hero911 app users who are within a 10-mile radius of the school that a shooting is taking place, which could include on-duty and off-duty law enforcement officers as well as retired and still certified public safety officials.

“If you’re on duty and in a patrol car, you will have a head start notice of the school shooting a good 60 or 70 or 80 seconds faster than if you waited for the 911 call to the communications center,” Snyders said. “If you’re off-duty or you’re in plain clothes, you may be across the street. You may be at the corner grocery store a mile away. You may be in a position where you can get to the school in an off-duty capacity faster than the on-duty police. Especially in some of these mid-size and rural communities, this is a big deal.”

Retired officers have no police authority, but many carry concealed firearms and also have training that would allow them to act as eyes and ears during such an event, Snyders said. At any given time during a crime like a school shooting, there’s a good chance that either an off-duty or retired police officer is nearby, with there being about 500,000 retired police officers in the country. Only relying on on-duty law enforcement limits the pool of people who can help in such an emergency, Snyders pointed out.

Snyders said he supports the idea of FirstNet’s first responder network, but pointed out that new technology like mobile apps must be considered in law enforcement’s future. Off-duty police officers are compelled to act if they witness a felony, and since they don’t have their radios with them while they’re off-duty, it makes sense to use mobile apps, Snyders said.

One consideration made during the development of Hero911 and SchoolGuard was whether teachers should have the ability to push out updates to the officers through the app as the emergency progresses. They decided against that, Snyders said, because the idea of Hero911 is not to displace or compete with traditional 911, but to work together with the usual law enforcement processes, while also giving officers a head start in the event of a school shooting. The app is intended to be complementary to existing emergency services, Snyders said.

Hero911 is a free app, available for certified law enforcement officers using Apple and Android devices. SchoolGuard will become available for teachers and schools on Jan. 1.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com