The new active shooter detection is system designed to provide real-time information on the location of shots fired inside a building, and cut critical minutes off police response times.
The first shot was faint and from inside the school auditorium easily could have been confused with the sound of an overstuffed binder dropping to the tile floor up the hallway. A minute – two minutes? – later the explosion outside the auditorium door was unmistakable.
Methuen police and school officials Tuesday afternoon ran a live test of a brand new active shooter detection system installed in one of the city’s schools, a system designed to provide immediate, real-time information on the location of shots fired inside a building and cut critical minutes and seconds off police response times. It can also direct officers to the shooter’s location, rather than spending time searching rooms and closets.
Police asked that the school remain unnamed.
“Nobody would know what’s going on inside the school,” police Chief Joseph Solomon said. “Police response would have been delayed by minutes.”
Roughly two dozen green dots, representing the sensors in the walls and ceilings, lined the hallways of the detection system’s floor plan of the two-story school building.
A Methuen police lieutenant using a gun filled with blanks roamed the hallways, firing the weapon at various times in different locations.
The first shot, the one that sounded like a binder, lit up two dots on the map near the media center and immediately sent out a text-message alert to the cell phones of the entire Methuen Police Department and select school and city officials. Solomon and former North Andover Police Chief Richard Stanley said that immediate notification shaves time off decision making and investigation.
Soon, about a half dozen policemen with plastic handguns and rifles swept into the school where the first shot was fired, followed the alert to the auditorium, and then chased a third alert to a shot fired on the second floor.
Stanley and Solomon said fielding the original emergency call, interviewing frightened and panicked witnesses and searching rooms would spend time a shooter could use to move around, hide or escape.
The system includes dozens of small square panels equipped with infrared cameras and microphones. Those sensors run that information through software that sifts through noise and, if gunfire is detected, immediately sends alerts that include the location of the panels that detected the shot. It can detect silenced and suppressed weapons as well.
Christian Connors, president of Shooter Detection Systems of Rowley, said his company installed the roughly $70,000 Guardian Indoor Gunshot Detection System in the school for nothing, provided Methuen use its officers and equipment for testing and training.
“It’s new to the market, but each panel has $50 million of research in it,” he said.
The military has used the system in both Afghanistan and Iraq to detect enemy gunfire nearby and to alert combat troops.
Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, who serves on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, said she is familiar with the technology and lauded its effectiveness.
“It has worked very well for our troops and has saved many lives that otherwise would have been lost,” she said.
The school, which for two years has served as a testing ground for the system, is about 225,000 square feet with two floors. Connors said a system for a similar building would cost between $50,000 and $100,000 and use between 50 and 60 sensor panels spread throughout.
Cost depends on the size of the building. Connors said the system does not require monitoring after it is up and running. “We don’t need to be involved,” he said. “It’s a stand alone system.”
The sensors have a 10-year lifespan and need to be tested and replaced, and software would need to be upgraded. Methuen officials would decide who gets the text alerts.
Solomon said he did not believe parents should get the real-time gunfire alerts, fearing those alerts would send parents, families and the media into an active shooter scene, though he does not decide who will get the alerts. Rather, the School Department would contact parents through its automated telephone system and direct them to locations to wait and get information.
This system is one part of the city’s threat detection program that includes prevention, such as fielding tips from students and monitoring social media, and emergency training protocols for school employees and students.
In time, Solomon said he hopes such shooter detection systems are installed not just throughout Methuen schools, but in all government buildings and eventually in work places. And like fire alarms, gunshot detection systems should be mandated in the building code, he said.
Methuen, along with Haverhill, Dracut and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, in May applied for a $2 million federal grant to install and test the system, though they did not receive it.
©2014 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.)