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NY Legislature passes measure calling on schools to consider alert systems

The homepage of the SaferWatch mobile app
WAMC screen capture

Update: New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed Alyssa's Law on June 23, 2022.

In the wake of mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas in May, New York lawmakers passed a measure amending state education law authorizing schools to consider panic alert systems as part of their safety plans. Alyssa’s Law is named for a victim of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law a number of other gun reform measures passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature, but has not signed Alyssa’s Law yet.

One of the companies that offers panic alert systems for schools is SaferWatch. Ian Moffett is the former Miami-Dade School Police Chief and serves on SaferWatch’s Board of Directors. He spoke with WAMC's Jim Levulis in June, shortly after the New York state legislature approved the measure.

Moffett: The SaferWatch app provides three things before, during and after an emergency crisis. So before crisis, we know that people have information, they have tips that they want to provide. So provide the platform to allow people to send tips in anonymously, or if they want to be contacted, directly to law enforcement, directly to schools, so that we can act on those mental illness with those tips to prevent things from occurring. And then during an emergency, much like you saw during the Robb Elementary shooting, during the emergency, people at the school, including our teachers, and staff can push the emergency alert button on their phone on the SaferWatch app that then goes directly to 911 centers, it’s integrated into their software, where now they can create a two-way communication with the 911 dispatcher, sending them information. So you can send them a text message, you can actually call them, you can send a video, you can send them audio, you can send them pictures of what's going on and do inter communication. SaferWatch also has the ability to send a link directly to the person's phone that turns that phone into live streaming video, somewhat like a body camera. So now you have active intelligence being sent directly to the 911 center. And then the center then sends that information to the first responders. And then obviously, being able to put information out on actions to take. So as somebody pushes that button in an emergency, they can instantaneously broadcast that information to all the teachers and all the staff. And they can essentially go into lockdown, take the necessary emergency protocols. And then after emergency, we can also provide mass notification messages to the parents, to the community about what to do, where to stay, what's happening, what's transpiring. So the SaferWatch tool provides before, during and after protocols.

Levulis: And to that real time information, you mentioned live video. How does that compare with information that law enforcement would get otherwise? You know, what other information would a police force typically be working off of?

Moffett: So that's a really, really good question you've asked. So Jim, normally, most schools do not have their video surveillance systems integrated into law enforcement dispatch center or the command center. Some schools do some school districts don't. So law enforcement and the 911 dispatchers are relying on the person who's calling. Imagine the first you know, 45-50 seconds, they’re asking you all these questions, who you are, where are you, what's going on, you're losing valuable time. So the ability to send video via the SaferWatch app, and to live stream video gives active intelligence, actionable information directly to the first responders and then that is sent to the first responders so that they know what's going on. So what happened in Uvalde, where the police chief thought there was a barricaded subject, now we're finding out that he didn't even have a radio on him. You know, the ability to get information, and to act on information is the most important thing. These incidents always have something to do with communication. The SaferWatch app provides increased response time. It reduces that communication gap. It's one of the best tools out there right now.

Levulis: And you mentioned it, there have been reports that a teacher at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas did use an alert system and activated it seconds before the shooter entered the building. From your understanding, as far as just the alert going out, etc., did that alert system work as intended?

Moffett: Right now, I think a lot of questions are up in the air regarding what type of alert system they had in Uvalde. I can tell you that with the SaferWatch app being in over 2,000 schools in the state of Florida and 120 911 centers, that it's the most popular app right now because of the fact that it's very accessible. Think about it. Everybody has a phone in their palm of their hand, the teachers, the students. So the ability to send out information, you don't necessarily need to have a large investment in capital outlay by putting wires, bells and whistles, the ability to send that information out on your phone. That to me is the game changer. And that's what I testified for in front of the Senate special hearings right after Parkland, about technology like this that really separates itself from other pieces of technology.

Levulis: You mentioned that a piece of the SaferWatch app allows folks to get in touch with authorities when there's not a real time event happening, but just concerns about an individual, seemingly related to a school system. How has that performed? How has the response been on that?

Moffett: So prevention to me is probably the most important thing. We often hear about people who are suicidal, mental illness, have these urges to go out and create these acts. I can tell you that SaferWatch has been very successful in preventing suicides, preventing mass shootings and preventing crimes in progress. Think about when we say ‘See Something, Say Something.’ How do we do that? Sitting in an airport, seeing a school, you know, are you really going to call 911 if you see something, say something. The ability to have an app in the palm of your hands to be able to send the information anonymously or to let them know who you are, send a picture, send a video immediately. And communicate two ways with law enforcement and the school is an absolute game changer in today's technology.

Levulis: Now, there was some hesitation among Florida teachers. You mentioned the app is in 2,000 Florida schools, to download the SaferWatch app over mainly privacy concerns in terms of, you know, an app tracking activity on cell phones, having access to different parts of the cell phone, etc. Has, or is the company addressing those concerns?

Moffett: Well, Jim, you bring up an excellent point. And we basically have been telling our clients and explaining to the public and the teachers and staff, this system, SaferWatch, operates just like when you call 911. We do not track your information, we do not follow you. When you walk into the school, there's a geofence that allows you to activate the app only while you're in school. So you can't use the app outside of school. And only when you activate the app is when we actually start tracking you for obviously, public safety concerns. When you call 911 on your cell phone, and it goes to 911 center, they automatically start tracking you, that's how they’re going to call you back. They track you from that standpoint. So SaferWatch is only tracking from the minute that you push that button on the phone, and it goes to 911. The 911 dispatcher must track you, must know what's going on for your safety and for the responders to know what's happening. So we've kind of you know, clarify that we've got great success and people understanding that when we tell them that, hey, even when you call on your cell phone 911 knows where you're at. And when you call on your landline, obviously, no one knows who you are yet. So it actually parallels 911.

Levulis: And for a school to be able to use SaferWatch, you mentioned the coordination with area law enforcement, those 911 call centers. Would those entities those agencies also need to approve the use of SaferWatch and/or have some sort of equipment upgrades?

Moffett: So Jim, that question comes up all the time. And the way that the law was structured in Florida, it provided for had to be an integration into the 911 center and an approval by the 911 directors and coordinators. So for example, SaferWatch’s app is a web-based platform. IT loves us from a security standpoint, it's secure. And we integrate directly into their existing function. There's no additional equipment that’s needed for the schools or for the 911 center or law enforcement. Our software is approved by the 911 directors. We do a test of every school to make sure that it's actually working. So 911 directors and coordinators actually really enjoy working with SaferWatch because it's seamless, it integrates without any need for additional costs, and it meets their stamp of approval.

Levulis: You were the chief of the Miami-Dade School Police Department. You know, obviously that you're in a different role now with SaferWatch. But is this sort of technology something you wish you had when you were in your law enforcement role?

Moffett: This is a funny question, because as I mentioned before, I had the opportunity to go with the Parkland parents to Washington to provide testimony to the Senate Special hearings. And I talked about an app like this being needed, or a two-way piece of communication and also giving information to law enforcement so that we can respond and reduce the gap. I can tell you that I wish I had this prior to 2018. I'm glad that this technology is here. I'm really excited that New York has adopted this technology. I would love to see the fact that SaferWatch in the vast majority is schools within the state of New York where we can actually reduce response time, increase communication, and actually utilize it before, during and after an incident.

Levulis: You also responded to the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut in 2012 for the US Department of Education. What was your role in that instance?

Moffett: Yeah, Jim, unfortunately, I've responded to numerous critical incidents and incidents in schools throughout my career. The US Department of Education brought me out to Sandy Hook a couple of days after. And my role was to speak to the first responders and the administrators and teachers in this town, about what to expect, what's the next steps? What happened during the incident and help part of the recovery phrase, including, you know, increasing technology and increasing safety awareness, increasing safety of the schools, communication. So I just shared my experience based on what I went through in South Florida many years ago with the things that we saw and being able to let them know that they're not alone. We stand with them there for support and making sure that they knew what to expect next, much like what's happening in Uvalde, that happened in Parkland and happening around the rest of United States when these things occur.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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