Wireless Watchdog

Mesh network helps high-school administrators clamp down on violence and vandalism.

by / August 31, 2005
The steel and brick walls of Seattle's Franklin High School were constructed in 1911, making Franklin High a landmark in its community.

Unfortunately it also has the distinction of being among the highest-rated Seattle area schools for incidences of trespassing, vandalism and violence, according to school administrators.

It's a lot to ask of three security guards and two school administrators to keep tabs on all 1,500 students, and keep others off campus. When school starts this fall, however, a wireless network will be in place to make that task a lot easier.

The network will provide better observation of the student population through eight strategically placed cameras -- five outside and three inside the building. The outside cameras will be placed at entrances to monitor who comes and goes. The inside cameras will be located in areas with high rates of incidents over the last three years.

The wireless network will allow administrators and security guards to communicate through handheld computers. They will, for example, be able to spot an incident from a camera, communicate with one another about it and continue to assess the situation as they move in.

Franklin was chosen for the pilot because of its structure -- the brick and steel building presents a challenge for wireless technology -- and because of its propensity for incidents.

"We thought it was a great technical challenge, as well as a great educational environment challenge," said Mark Tucker, CEO of CoCo Communications. "We felt if it could work here, it could work anywhere."

The company hopes the pilot will lead to a string of similar projects connecting schools with law enforcement -- a project CoCo calls the National School Protection Network.

Dual Challenges
Franklin High's assistant principal, Bruce Bivins, said it is a necessary partnership.

"Our focus is to create a safe campus for our kids who are doing the right thing," Bivins said. "We had a high incidence of vandalism, assaults and trespassing. They wanted to take that on."

Talks between CoCo Communications, Franklin High School representatives, the school district and the PTA took place in the spring to make sure everyone was onboard, and the project was approved.

The building is now equipped with 26 wireless communication nodes. A node can consist of a sensor, a camera or a wireless hub on which software is loaded. The nodes make real-time video transmission possible, and are connected to the school's computer system and the land mobile radio system administrators use.

Franklin High's five stories and its brick and steel walls posed a challenge, said Tucker. The building, like other old high-school buildings, doesn't have Category 5 (CAT5) cable in its walls to hook PCs up to a LAN like a modern office building.

"If you walked into a Starbucks, flipped open your laptop and started using their [wireless] access, their wireless point is plugged into the wall using CAT5 cable," Tucker said. "The big breakthrough here is there's no cable. All the routing and networking happens in the air so you don't have the added costs of wiring anything." Without using wireless technology, the school would have to connect each one of those 26 nodes to a CAT5 cable."

In this instance, the nodes make up the network, creating a wireless security blanket around the school. It is hoped that law enforcement will tap into the network as they approach the school.

In fact, plans are already under way to involve law enforcement in the project, according to Bivins.

"We're looking at them taking the software onto their laptops in their cruisers so that when they pull into a certain perimeter they'll have access," he explained.

When phase I, which includes deploying the wireless network and cameras, concludes -- most likely at the end of 2006 -- the school will begin bringing law enforcement onto the system as part of the second phase. This is the vision for the National School Protection Network, said Tucker.

"We're trying to put together schools all across the country so the network can be used to protect each school and also connect them to the first responder groups within a particular area. For instance, if there's a sex offender in the area or there was just a robbery, schools will be notified accordingly."

Using HP iPAQ handheld devices, school administrators can access applications on their desktop computers from anywhere in the building or within a one-block radius of the building.

"It's first and foremost going to be used for data connectivity," Tucker said. "But it gives the faculty, who are really the first responders to a school incident, the ability to address the incident."

Bivins said the technology is essential for monitoring the school's eight entrances and 1,500 students. "We need our eyes on multiple locations to create efficiency. You can monitor any camera at any given time, and you can be communicating through conference calling, cell phone or Internet access."

At the same time, a recording is made of events for future reference.

It's a communication tool, said Bivins, and a deterrent for unruly behavior.

"This says, 'We don't want you to pull what you've pulled the last three years -- assaulting kids, trespassing or bringing your drug traffic or gang violence on our campus,'" he continued.

Nationwide Network
The price range to set up a Wi-Fi network would be between $50,000 and $200,000 for each school, depending on the level of service -- how many cameras, how many nodes and the physical structure of the school, said Tucker.

He said the cost of the Franklin High implementation ranged between $75,000 and $125,000, but that the school got a break because it was the pilot.

Bivins said the school paid about $15,000 for the software, technical support for one year, eight cameras and 10 HP iPAQs.

More money is being allocated by the federal government for improving security near schools, according to Tucker. An example is the Emergency Response and Crisis Management grant program offered by the U.S. Department of Education. The program will offer 104 grants averaging between $100,000 and $500,000 per school district.

Bivins believes the system is worth the investment.

"Just having the cameras up is a deterrent," he said. "For me it's ideal. It gets me out of the office, in the classrooms, around school and it allows me to do my job."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor