September 7, 2016

Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2016

Using Technology to Protect From Mass Shootings

New devices promise to turn schools, other facilities into ‘hardened’ targets

By Christopher Mims

When designing the new $50 million Sandy Hook Elementary School to replace the building in which 20 children and six adults were killed in December 2012, architects Julia McFadden and Jay Brotman faced the challenge of creating a facility that would be both secure and nurturing. Many aspects of the school were designed with security in mind, from a perimeter fence to a garden that does double duty as landscaping and rampart, intended to funnel all visitors into one of the school’s three entrances.

Active shooter situations in the U.S. have surged, to an average of 19 such incidents annually since 2010, from fewer than nine annually in the prior decade. Still, few schools have the luxury of a complete security-focused redesign. So security companies are peddling high-tech retrofits. The goal is to transform schools—as well as hospitals, offices, movie theaters and other public spaces—into “hardened targets.”

In June, the Stanley Mechanical Solutions unit of Stanley Black & Decker Inc. unveiled its Shelter system, designed to allow a teacher, security officer or administrator to lock the door to a classroom, or every room in a school, with the press of a button on a wireless pendant. Simultaneously, the system alerts law enforcement.

As active-shooter drills become almost as common as fire drills at America’s approximately 130,000 elementary and secondary schools, Stanley has plenty of competition. Allegion PLC offers the Schlage CO-220 “stand-alone electronic classroom lockdown solution,” which lets teachers lock the door to their own room by pressing a button on a neck-worn pendant. Closely held SecureAll Corp. approaches the issue another way: Doors can be kept locked, and can only be opened with a key fob that comes within a preset distance of 2 to dozens of feet.

The focus on locking the classroom door is appropriate. A report commissioned by Connecticut after the Sandy Hook tragedy concluded that an active shooter had never breached a locked classroom door. Such events typically end too fast for killers to bother trying to bypass secure doors.

For cash-strapped school districts, the biggest challenge to securing America’s schools is cost. That is where new low-power wireless technologies come in.

Brian Ray, founder and chief technology officer of Link Labs, which helped Stanley develop the Shelter system, says the challenge was combining long battery life, fast response time and transmitting wireless signals long range.

In the past, locks had to be hard wired to a building’s electrical systems to have enough power to scan for a wireless signal every second or more often. To create a responsive enough lock that could run on battery power, Link Labs and Stanley employed a new wireless protocol dubbed LoRa, developed by Semtech Corp. LoRa signals can’t transmit data as quickly as those used for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but they are better at penetrating walls and traveling long distances.

The result is battery-powered locks without the expense of wiring into existing electrical systems. Instead, they are connected by a network that can typically cover a square kilometer indoors and connect up to 100 doors in a school to a single “gateway,” or wireless base station.

So called “access control systems” have existed as long as electronic locks, but the notion of putting them on every door heightens the emphasis on cost. Traditional systems cost up to $3,000 per door. Stanley says its system is $500 per door. Allegion says it has systems in the same price range.

That was affordable enough for officials in Littleton, Colo., to trial Stanley’s Shelter system in one of its schools, in anticipation of installing it in each of the district’s 27 schools, says security director Guy Grace. His schools are a model of how sophisticated school security has become: Beyond the door locks, the schools also feature security cameras and a separate system that can alert security officers if there is a problem with a student or disgruntled parent.

The key to thwarting active shooters, says Joe Monroe, police chief at the University of Kentucky, which is testing Stanley’s locks, is to notify police immediately, secure people in the building and delay the attacker.

“The one thing that almost all active-shooter situations have in common is they end before law enforcement gets there,” says Mr. Monroe. “So we’ve got to find something to help people in these classrooms where they can lock themselves into a room and aren’t barricading it and putting bodies against it.”

Active shooters are a tiny proportion of gun deaths in the U.S. To an extent, these systems address the fear of such an event as much as the actuality.

“Schools are the safest place children can be—safer than their homes or any other environment,” says Ms. McFadden, an architect at the firm that designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary. “The perception of the chance of it happening is why we really have to provide assurance to our families,” adds her colleague Mr. Brotman.

These systems are new enough that no one yet knows how they will perform in a real active-shooter situation. It is also possible that, as is often the case with technology, simplicity and reliability will win out.

The Sandy Hook architects considered connected door locks on classroom doors, but ultimately chose a low-tech option: The doors are locked by default, and can only be opened from the inside or from the outside with a key.

Write to Christopher Mims at christopher.mims@wsj.com

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