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WBZ-Boston features an in-depth report on how the ESS Surveillance Access Unit (SAU) was successfully implemented at Fitchburg (MA) High School. (2:23)

ESS Surveillance Access Unit in use in police vehicle


School Cameras to Help Police During an Emergency

Fitchburg, MA (WBZ) Police officer Todd Deacon was in no hurry when he pulled up in front of Fitchburg High School this morning and tapped some keys on his cruiser's laptop. But the next time he does it he might be answering a panicky "shots fired" call, and lives could hang in the balance.

It's not long before eight different camera views pop up on his screen. Officer Deacon has remotely hooked into the school's eight security cameras, and can see what's going on inside even before he hops out of his patrol car.

"Hopefully we'll never have an active shooter situation here," Deacon says. "But we'd be able to pinpoint where the incident was taking place."

Fitchburg High is the first school in the world testing a hi-tech system that gives responding police a wireless window into the building should a crisis come calling.

"The software is designed to give officers access from the curb, so they can formulate a better plan," says the school's media specialist Alan Twomley.

Think Columbine. That's the Colorado high school where two heavily armed teens slaughtered a dozen students and a teacher before killing themselves. Police lost precious time trying to figure out where the gunmen were, and where the survivors were huddled.

The system being tested at Fitchburg High addresses both. Of course, the whole philosophy of handling a school siege has changed since Columbine. Officers no longer wait -- they forge into the school almost immediately with the belief it'll save lives.

And that's where this new system designed by Emergency Surveillance Systems of Glendale, Arizona comes in. As long as the first responding officers are within 100 yards of the school, they'd be able to hook into the cameras from their cruisers. "An extra set of eyes on the inside," as Officer Deacon describes it.

Hopefully, police would get a brief, real time survey of what's going on inside, and be able to pick an entry point. That's far safer and much more effective than charging in blind.

"We'd quickly see what the situation is," says Officer Deacon. "Is anybody injured? Is the gunman holding hostages somewhere? Then go from there."

"If the cafeteria is full and the officer sees the perp going that way, he might be able to head him off," says Twomley. "The officer could pick a door between the two, and if he's lucky, stop the perp from getting to those kids."

Ideally, officers outside could direct a strike team inside via walkie talkie, as they rescue hostages and hunt down the gunmen.

Students seem more than OK with it. "Schools can be violent places," says student Michael Tetreault. "People can bring in guns and knives. I think this just helps the school environment feel another sense of safety. It's a good thing."

"The police won't be walking blindly into something dangerous," adds student Tom Membrino. "They're risking their lives. At least they'll know what to expect."

In addition to the cameras, officers using the encrypted computer hookup will also get access to a blueprint of the school -- in case they need to know where a certain vent goes -- or something of that sort.

The school would love to add more cameras to the system, but are certainly glad to have it.

"It provides a nice comfort level for staffers and students," says Twomley. "But nobody gets more comfort from it than parents."

Boston Area News, November 2, 2009


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