Schools are paying millions for safety apps. Here’s what they do.

The back-to-school shopping lists of districts nationwide are long, confusing and expensive, but one popular item seems tailor-made to this new digital age: safety apps. Used by schools, offices, and private citizens, these apps aim to connect the individual to the wider community in times of crisis.

In June, Suffolk County in New York raised a $2 million bond to license one panic button app. Florida legislators recently set aside $400,000 to develop their own state-wide safety app. And Colorado, Arkansas, and other states have been using their own for years.

“There’s been an explosion in the number of safety apps,” said Eric Plummer, chief of the University of North Dakota’s campus police department. The choices are myriad, and they’ve become a critical tool for his younger, more tech-savvy force, he said. So too for the student body, not just on college campuses but at the K-12 level.

“What you’re seeing in the market is different app vendors trying to address different portions of, what I’ll refer to as, a cycle of an emergency,” said Mike Shields, vice president of sales at Rave Mobile Safety. Here are three ways apps are addressing emergency prevention, response, and communication.

Reporting apps

“Back in the day, we would have these crisis tip hotlines where somebody could call and report something,’ said Mo Canady, executive director of NASRO. “Well, nobody’s going to do that anymore, especially students and younger teachers. They’re going to use the app.”

Reporting apps, like the state of Colorado’s Safe2Tell app, allow students and other community members to anonymously report concerns about troubling behavior, drug use, or child abuse to school officials and sometimes police. That anonymity is key, said Melissa Reeves, an associate professor at Winthrop University and former president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

“Students don’t want to be identified as the narc or the snitch,” said Reeves. “We’re really trying to educate students about the importance of coming forward and telling them, ‘You’re getting help for somebody who needs it. And, quite honestly, you’re helping to protect your school.”

‘Blue light’ apps

These apps, named for the emergency call boxes (topped with blue lights) that dot college campuses, are in widespread use nationwide, with universities often white labeling such apps for their own use. New York University, Loyola Marymount University, University of Colorado, and University of North Dakota are just a handful of campuses using such apps. AppArmor’s client list includes University of Florida, UCLA, and University of North Dakota.

“When something occurs, it seems like the blue phone is never there,” said UND’s Chief Plummer. Unlike the stationary boxes, students carry their blue light apps with them. The apps are GPS-enabled and, after immediately connecting students to a campus safety operator, allows the department to track their location while campus police respond to their call. Officers have a corresponding app installed on their personal laptops, so they can get real-time coordinates on alarms signaled anywhere on their 551-acre campus, he said.

Capabilities vary, but some apps allow students to upload their photo and other personal information; others allow students to notify family members simultaneously. Many allow students to let their friends or the authorities know when they’re walking somewhere alone, and asks them to track their progress until they arrive at their location. Apps like BSafe, market themselves as personal safety apps that allow anyone to create their own safety network, useful for students at universities that do not support an app.

Panic button apps

School shootings begin and end in mere minutes—both the Parkland and Santa Fe shooters concluded their shooting sprees in less than four minutes. In the wake of these tragedies, schools and other institutions looking for ways to shorten emergency response time are turning to panic button apps, sometimes investing millions to license them and integrate their systems.

Usually entrusted with a select group of safety agents—school faculty and administrators, for example—these apps report emergency type and location data more quickly than a traditional 911 dial, according to Mike Shields, vice president of sales at Rave Mobile Safety.

“Let’s just say you have the ability to get to a landline, what type of data is that 911 center getting?” Shields said. “It might say the school address, it might say your room number, but it might not. So now you’re still going to have to talk.”

Rave’s panic button, on the other hand, sends all pertinent information to a 911 call center in seconds. Then, it sends updates and instructions to all relevant personnel—teachers, staff, students—via email and push notifications, allowing the user to turn their attention back to the unfolding emergency.  “Our goal is very simple: to get the right information to the right people at the right time,” Shields said.

But Shields emphasized that app purchases are not set it and forget it solutions. “These technologies are designed to enhance protocols that you already have in place,” Shields said. Organizations must invest in developing sound response procedures and invest in ongoing training. “Don’t just say, ‘Hey, now we’re going to press this.’”

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