As part of ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of over 100,000 children, Pinellas County Schools (PCS) is now the first district in the state to utilize new safety technology.
On Aug. 2, PCS officials announced its implementation of the Active Law Enforcement Response Technology (ALERT) was complete. Every public school in Pinellas County, the state’s seventh-largest district, will feature the new system when kids return to classrooms on Aug. 10.
The innovative ALERT platform provides several tactical aids, real-time cameras and mapping tools to help law enforcement respond faster and more efficiently to a crisis. PCS Police Chief Luke Williams is indifferent to his district becoming the first in the nation’s third-largest state to deploy the cutting-edge technology. He is more focused on using it to save lives.
“Pinellas County has been very proactive in making sure that we’re looking at best practices and learning from, unfortunately, things that we’ve seen around the nation,” said Williams. “Basically, trying to improve the system that we already have in existence to try and prevent bad things from happening … ”
The new system stems from a partnership with security technology company IntraLogic Solutions that began in 2019. Time is everything during an emergency, said Williams, and ALERT provides critical information instantaneously to the school’s police force, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) and individual police departments.
In addition to physical panic buttons throughout the schools, faculty and staff can now sound the alarm through their cellphones via the accompanying Saferwatch app. Once activated, officers receive real-time remote access to a school’s cameras, door locking mechanisms and public announcement system.
Law enforcement can now search for specific descriptors through the camera feeds, such as the color of a shirt a suspect is wearing. It also allows those monitoring the situation from a control room to direct teachers and students to safety – and fellow officers to the threat. Strobe lights provide an added alert for kids outside or in loud areas like band rooms and cafeterias unable to hear the PA system during an emergency.
“It’s a force multiplier, for a lack of a better term,” said Williams. And, if a person can’t speak – and in some circumstances, we don’t want them to say anything … we geolocate that person and are able to come directly to where they are.”
The ALERT system, previously featured in a Good Morning America segment, works in conjunction with established security measures mandated by the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. The PCSO oversees both initiatives, and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri also chairs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.
The new platform takes those security measures “to the next level.”
“Just keeping these students safe, from the moment they step onto the campus until they leave,” said Williams. “And it really starts from the sidewalk.”
In July, several area first responders tested the system’s effectiveness at a PCS elementary school. Williams said 500-600 people participated in the active shooter training exercise, which required extensive logistical planning to coordinate the influx of fire, rescue and police personnel from several jurisdictions.
“We learned a lot,” said Williams. “There’s a lot of things we do well. We also discovered there are some things we can probably hone and do a little bit better – and that was the purpose of the exercise.”
He added that different departments take varying approaches to similar situations and hopes training on the new system provides a set of best practices to jurisdictions throughout the county.
Complacency is one of Williams’ greatest concerns. From the superintendent to substitutes, he said it is critical for everyone to follow their training and understand why the practices are in place. He realizes that some measures can inconvenience teachers – like unlocking a door every time a student needs to use the bathroom – but believes those extra efforts can mean the difference between life and death.
“We don’t want them (faculty) to have to stand in front of somebody like you and say, ‘I wish I had done what I should have done,'” said Williams. “We have to think about if it were your child or your family member, would you be as lax with the way you do things?”
Williams further elaborated on the dangers of complacency, again using the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting as an example. He noted a subsequent report of the tragedy showed that because the school was close to the Mexican border, it often underwent lockdown protocols due to illegal immigrants running from law enforcement in the area.
Because it was such a common occurrence, school officials began to disregard the lockdown orders.
PCS has similar procedures, and Williams said he expects schools to follow closed campus protocols, even if there are four such orders daily.
“I think there are things in place that we would like to say could have prevented things that happened in Uvalde,” he said. “The question would be if something were to happen in Pinellas County, would we be complacent, or will we be following the rules?”
As the dawn of a new school year approaches, Williams wants parents to rest easy knowing that 300-400 people are doing everything possible to protect their children.
Just a few days prior – in an attempt to drive the gravity of the new school climate home to his officers – Williams told them to imagine their first day of school. He asked them to remember the fear and apprehension of starting a new journey, not knowing anyone or when they were going to eat and how they “were probably crying, like I did.”
He then asked them to think about children in today’s society and what they must witness on TV. They are not worried about finding the cafeteria, said Williams. They wonder if they will make it home to see their parents – and it is their duty as school officers to ensure that happens every afternoon.
Parents, he said, should continue encouraging their children. Let them know school is fun and resource officers are friendly and approachable, just regular people that wear uniforms to work.
“When you drop your child off, they’re going to be in good hands,” said Williams. “And not only full with knowledge but well fed and cared for.
“We got your kids, and we got your loved ones.”