Critical Wireless Communications in Schools Part 1

January 14th, 2019

The Federal Commission on school Safety Report released their final report on School Safety in December and, as Alliance expected, effective communication is listed as one of the biggest challenges in dealing with the active shooter threat.  From timely notification of an incident, to the ability of First Responders to communicate via their LMR systems, communication is key.

We may not be able to stop the threat or occurrence of an active shooter, but we certainly have the technology to make a difference.

If you are with a school district and you are uncertain what type of technology you need, please reach out to us. We will not install it, but we can recommend what type of solution you need and provide some references to companies that can do the testing and installation in your town.

In the news we hear way too often of situations where there is a person with a gun in or near a school. Sometimes this is referred to as an “Active Shooter”. Schools take precaution by going into “Hold and Secure” mode. The police might further order schools to go into “Lockdown”. Schools practice for these situations by holding “lock down” drills where children are locked inside and must stay in place to hide from unnamed threats. My daughter’s school tells the children that they are hiding from coyotes, which is a nice way to not terrify the children unnecessarily. Just last week in our town there was an incident with a gun where three high schools were on lockdown. When I started writing this blog post I couldn’t have imagined that my town would also be affected by this all-to-common occurrence.

Staying in place during a Hold & Secure or School Lockdown might mean you are unable to access a phone or a wireless signal and that might be the critical link to inform public safety officials about an incident or provide an update or critically get a warning to the students/ teachers.

Can you make the call?

As identified in The Federal Commission on school Safety Report:

 “The ability to communicate quickly and effectively often is central to a successful response to an active shooter incident. This includes the ability of school staff or students to quickly inform law enforcement of an active shooter situation, thus initiating the law enforcement response; the ability to quickly alert staff, students, and other members of the community of an ongoing active shooter situation in order to initiate a lock down, evacua­tion, or other appropriate action; and the ability for law enforcement to communicate among them­selves and with the school as necessary during a response.

Unfortunately, as Max Schachter, CEO and Founder of Safe Schools for Alex, noted during his testimony to the Commission, there are “communication-re­lated problems that impede law enforcement during all tragedies, including [the Parkland school shooting].”These may include outdated or insuf­ficient communications equipment (e.g., radios or phones that do not receive signals inside school buildings), lack of training on existing communica­tions equipment or protocols, and a lack of interop­erability between the communications equipment possessed by first responder organizations and the school.”

Final Report of the US Federal Communication on School Safety.

Lack of Cellular or Mobile Phone Connectivity/ Signal in schools

One problem that has been identified not only by the Federal Commission Report on School Safety but by many others is the lack of cellular signal in schools. Schools are generally made of steel and cinder block construction. These materials do a great job of blocking cell phone signals. I’ve been inside the school gym of my children’s elementary school, it is at the center of the building, which means it is surrounded by cinder blocks and steel and there is no cell phone signal, even though there is a cell phone tower less than half a mile away.

The problem is that cell phone use during school time is distracting and so schools don’t mind so much that the cell phone signals are not great in the school. Many towns also debate the proximity of cellular towers to schools because of concern about the wireless waves. Wi-Fi connectivity has been debated and isn’t always accessible either. Hardening of schools has been one of the recommendations – adding solid doors for example. However hardening of the construction will just make the cellular signal even worse.

What if something happened at your school? Can you make the call?

If an incident unfurled can you call for help? Does your cell phone work? How do you call for help if your cell phone doesn’t work?

Some schools have mass communication systems using text messages. What if you cannot receive that text? Or send one? How do you get word to people who are in these buildings where the cellular networks simply do not work?

Our recommended solution for improving the cellular signal within a school

One solution for providing reliable cell coverage in buildings such as schools is to install inbuilding cellular boosters. Many popular cellular booster solutions on the market can cause issues and interference with the local cellular tower and thus are not recommended by us for most situations.

Alliance recommends a newer solution called Cel-Fi Quatra by Nextivity. The QUATRA system is approved by Verizon, AT&T and other carriers. It will boost the signal for multiple cellular providers and it can scale to provide coverage for buildings and properties from 25,000 sq ft up to 250,000 sq ft.  It is installed quickly.

Why do we recommend Quatra versus an off the shelf booster?

Cel-Fi Quatra’s technology enables a better solution. Cel-Fi Quatra functions more like a handset with higher gain and better coverage with a more uniform signal. It is carrier-approved so it won’t cause problems with existing networks. It does not require cumbersome carrier re-transmission agreements, which means less time needed to deploy a system.

Unlike older analog boosters and passive DAS technology, Cel-Fi QUATRA delivers a cellular signal that is up to 1000x stronger. Cel-Fi Quatra uses CAT 5e cabling for RF and Power over Ethernet, with no signal attenuation right to the perimeter of the building. Cel-Fi QUATRA installs in just days at a reasonable price point.

For help finding a company in your town that can do a survey of your schools and property and to help boost the cellular signal, contact us.