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$3.2-million school panic alarm plan in Nassau sees delays, technical glitches

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, holds a wireless

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, holds a wireless panic alarm device that will be used to increase safety and security at local schools on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 in Carle Place. Credit: Alejandra Villa

Nearly two years after Nassau County announced a $3.2 million plan to outfit public schools with GPS-enabled panic alarms to use during an emergency, not a single notification system has been installed, officials said.

Technical glitches because of a vendor's contractual dispute with the county and a tepid response from some school districts delayed the implementation of the panic alarms, officials said.

The postponement could pave the way for a newer app-based technology the county is testing and may use in favor of, or in combination with, the panic alarms, officials said.

Chuck Ribando, deputy county executive for public safety, said the county has tested a "promising" smartphone app, which would provide superior technology compared with the panic alarm device.

Once installed, the GPS-equipped panic alarms would allow school personnel to communicate directly with the police department's Communications Bureau, which operates its 911 system, helping authorities responding to emergency calls. The devices would have a two-way microphone that could only be disabled by police.

The app would allow law enforcement authorities to communicate with a caller via text message during an emergency, Ribando said, adding it would be part of a comprehensive security system.

"We can't hit rewind; we can't go back to 2013, so let's try to move forward the best way we can," Ribando said. There is no deadline yet for the program's implementation.

"That's why you get new cellphones -- two years ago, they made this cellphone and now two years later there's a new cellphone," said Ribando, whom Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano tapped to oversee the program. "Instead of being committed to what you committed to two years ago, why not see if there's anything better out there?"

Renegotiate contract

The application, which the county is testing in the North Merrick school system, is made by Rave Mobile Safety, which also created the Smart 911 program used by the county. Ribando said the county is in discussions with the Framingham, Massachusetts-based company, but would likely be able to negotiate a contract allowing unlimited access to the application for a flat fee, still to be determined.

Exactly what the security apparatus offered free to all schools will ultimately look like is still being discussed. County officials said the system could be a "hybrid" of the panic alarms and the app.

It's unclear, however, how many school districts countywide, which began classes for the new school year earlier this month, will take advantage of the technology the county selects. Many school districts already have their own security apparatuses, including panic alarms, officials said.

"A lot of the districts aren't that enthusiastic," acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said in an interview. "Some are; some aren't. It depends on the school. They have other systems."

Krumpter said he could not say how many schools had expressed interest in the panic alarms.

David Feller, superintendent of North Merrick schools, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents and chairman of its school safety committee, counts himself as a booster of the county's program -- whether it's a panic alarm or an app.

"It's my understanding that many schools would be very interested in gaining access to these devices once they knew that they were something that would be reliable and would work," Feller said.

Schools on Long Island and across the country have enhanced security systems as school shootings -- including Columbine and Sandy Hook -- have been seared in the public consciousness.

Mangano announced the plan to put panic alarms in the county's schools in October 2013, citing the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut the previous year that left 26 victims and the gunman dead.

But a contract dispute with county contractor Intergraph over the department's Records Management System delayed the rollout, officials said. The wireless technology used to operate the panic alarms -- called Computer Aided Dispatch or CAD -- needed to be updated.

In April 2015, the legislature approved an agreement between the county and Intergraph that will provide the CAD upgrade and interface necessary for the integration of the panic alarms, which are manufactured by Garden City-based World Wide Security Group, into the CAD system, according to a police department statement.

Mangano's spokesman, Brian Nevin, said recently: "The county executive was outraged to find out that this delay occurred." Nevin called the delay "unfortunate."

Carle Place schools Superintendent David Flatley decided not to wait on the county and got his own "very robust security system" for his 1,400-student district. He declined to detail it, citing security concerns.

"Clearly, if somebody is going to come into our buildings hoping to do us harm, we don't want them to know what our security protocols are. We are and have been beefing up our security protocols over the last two years."

Anything the county offers, Flatley said, would be extra. "Redundancy in the security world is always a good thing," Flatley said. "Somebody might question why redundancy is necessary -- I'd say, 'the more the merrier.' I'd continue to look forward to working with the county on this kind of a program should they be able to fix their technical problems."

North Merrick's alarms

In North Merrick, which has a student population of about 1,200, the district recently bought its own panic alarms -- a wired system that should be operational by the beginning of its school year.

The district's panic alarms don't have the enhanced technology that the police department's panic alarms have -- namely the GPS function. "We see this as a supplement," Feller said. "What the police announced is really -- I think it's meant to be an add-on. I don't think it's meant to be the end-all and be-all."

About two years ago, the county partnered with Nassau BOCES, which designed technology allowing the police to access in real time school surveillance cameras and digitized floor plans.

Nassau Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki, who has attended the superintendent's council school safety committee meetings for the past two years to design what he called a "comprehensive" approach to school shootings or other emergencies, said a panic alarm or the app being tested would be just one part of an overall school security plan that he and others are working to standardize in all schools.

"There are some operational procedures that need to be addressed as well; it's not as simple as buying the app and handing it out and saying, 'Use this,' " Skrynecki said. "You have to make sure that the people holding the app understand the protocols."

Coordinating and sharing information with school districts -- during emergencies inside a school building and outside or within the proximity -- is also part of the equation, Skrynecki said. Recently, the department responded to a report of a man "with a gun to his head walking on school property on the grounds of one school and just down the block from another."

The police and the school district coordinated "first a lockout, and secondly we were able to exercise a coordinated dismissal using certain doors that were away from the event, that would be providing protection to students, and we helped the school superintendents coordinate that message to their parents," Skrynecki said.

Last year, a legislative committee approved a $3.2 million contract -- paid for with grant money, Ribando said -- with World Wide Security Group for as many as 4,000 wireless push-button devices that, with a two-way microphone, can connect users quickly with the police 911 center and provide their location. Some of these could be used in schools, if officials decide to go that route. The $3.2 million would help pay for the panic alarms or new applications technology, as well as other police initiatives.

Meanwhile, Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Elmont) said he'd like to see the rollout of the alarms happen quickly: "I think our society altogether -- our schools and our local governments -- are learning how to better adapt when it comes to handling these sort of threats. And I'm glad to see this technology finally being unveiled, but I would like to see it countywide and not just relegated to just one school district."

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