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A Growing Response to School Shootings: Panic Buttons -- on Phones

Washington, D.C., is the latest school district to adopt the technology in an effort to improve emergency response times.

panic button
(Rave Mobile Safety)


  • Panic button apps send out 911-style alerts to emergency personnel as well as school staff and/or students.
  • The technology has become popular in hotels and schools, especially since the Parkland shooting.
  • They are designed to improve the police response time in the event of an emergency.
There have been 82 school shootings so far in 2018 -- by far the highest annual tally on record, according to the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which maintains a database of them.

As that number has increased dramatically in recent years, public safety officials have grappled with how to respond to the incidents quickly and safely. One innovation that many cities have implemented is "panic buttons" -- phone apps that can instantly send out 911-style alerts during a shooting and hopefully reduce the number of injuries and fatalities.

Last week, Washington, D.C., became the latest local jurisdiction to announce it would adopt the technology. The mobile application, which every school employee will be able to access, sends alerts to emergency personnel in much the way 911 systems work, but it includes several added features.

For one, the app distributes information about a fire, medical, police or active shooter emergency to other cell phones connected to the same school safety network. So if an active shooter incident is reported by a teacher or staff member, their fellow employees will receive the same information being given to the police.

Secondly, the app gives automatic access to additional information even if the person triggering the call can’t -- the address of the school, a floorplan of the building, the best points of access, the number of students and teachers in the building; and the layout of the entire school campus. It also will provide contact information for key school personnel.

“The top priority for the mayor and our office is the safety of our residents,” says Karima Holmes, director of the Office of Unified Communications, which consolidates all the city's emergency and nonemergency services. “Making improvements to how information is shared with first responders and improving emergency response times is paramount to our mission.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the average response time to an active shooter incident is 18 minutes, while the average active shooter event lasts less than 13 minutes. Panic button providers claim the apps cut response times in half, but there haven't been any independent studies of the technology's use in a school setting. 

Panic buttons have become increasingly popular in both the public and private sector.

Hotel workers have long asked for them to protect staffers from physical attacks by guests. City ordinances requiring hotel workers to be equipped with panic buttons have spread in recent years -- to places including Chicago and Miami Beach, Fla. In Seattle, though, the hotels are still fighting a 2016 ballot measure that required their employees to have panic buttons.

Since the Parkland shooting, which left 17 people dead at a Florida high school in February, the technology has begun a slow but steady adoption by school districts across the country -- from Connecticut, Iowa and South Carolina to Arkansas, Texas and Utah. 

“By implementing these offerings, Washington D.C., joins thousands of municipalities, schools, universities, hospitals, and corporations across the country that are improving their emergency communications,” says Todd Piett, CEO of Rave Mobile Safety, the company providing the panic buttons.

In 2016, a panic button helped law enforcement disarm a student in Marion, Ark. A teacher clicked the active shooter function on the app after hearing reports from students that one of the children was bragging about having a gun at school. A lockdown was immediately initiated, and law enforcement apprehended the armed student and recovered the weapon without any injuries.

The cost of panic button systems range between $15 and $30 per employee, per year. Other companies providing panic buttons to schools include Enseo and Alertus.

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