The Prince William County school system will be the first in the country to deploy at several schools a new technology that will offer administrators, teachers, police and rescue authorities a better way to communicate during emergencies, officials announced yesterday.
The technology, developed by Seattle-based CoCo Communications Corp. and funded with a $246,661 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, will enable school and public safety workers to share information, even if one person is using a cell phone and another a radio.
In the next several weeks, two Prince William high schools and a middle and elementary school will be equipped with a software program that seamlessly links different devices on a single network. Only one other school in the country, in Seattle, is using the technology, according to Mike Brennan, a CoCo spokesman.
The technology "has implications for the whole nation's security," Lucy S. Beauchamp, the Prince William School Board chairman, said at a news conference yesterday. She pointed to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Washington area sniper shootings and Hurricane Katrina as crises during which the kind of communication made possible by the CoCo software would have increased public safety.
With the software, teachers trapped in a school with their students could use their cell phones, or hand-held computers, to talk with police officers outside with walkie-talkies. Officials would also be able to download images from the schools' or school buses' video surveillance cameras onto their own devices. And instead of having to wait for police to call during a terrorism threat, school officials would be able to get urgent news to teachers who might be locked inside classrooms with students.
"Schools are isolated. They have their own radios and telephones. But they are not an integral part of our traditional responder community," said Peter Erickson, a vice president of CoCo, which is hoping to spread the technology to other schools and build what it calls the National School Protection Network.
Prince William's school system, Northern Virginia's second-largest, is familiar with crisis conditions. Aside from dealing with the Sept. 11 terrorist attack at the Pentagon and a sniper shooting inside the county, school officials contended last year with a 12-year-old boy who threatened to shoot people with a loaded rifle inside 1,100-student Bull Run Middle School in Gainesville. No shots were fired and no one was injured, but, like so many such incidents, police did not know what, exactly, was going on inside the school when they arrived.
"Being able to have that live video feed at Bull Run would have been helpful," said Lt. Kevin Hughart of the Prince William County Police Department. "We would have known which kids were locked down [and] which could have escaped. We would have had the ability to talk to people on the scene."
David J. Huckestein, principal of Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas -- which, along with Stonewall Jackson Middle School, Ellis Elementary and New Directions High School, will get the technology -- said he is grateful for the improvements.
"As an administrator, you look at Columbine and some of the other things like that that happen, and you always feel for those administrators and think, 'I hope that never happens to me,' " he said. "But this puts you at ease, because it will allow other people to see into your building."