School Sensor Can Alert Authorities, Lock Doors When Gunfire Is Heard

Apr 2, 2018
Originally published on April 2, 2018 4:59 pm

At work, Jim Skorpik's nickname is a handle better known for missiles: "Hellfire."

As a longtime federal electrical engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., he's developed sensors to track missiles' readiness for battle that measure heat or impacts that could damage them.

Lately, Skorpik has turned his know-how to schools.

He's designed a system to identify a gunshot's location and caliber. When it's integrated with a security system it can alert authorities, train cameras on the area where shots were fired, lock doors, sound the building's public address system and lock perimeter doors.

It started for him with the Sandy Hook shooting. Then a couple years later three of his grandchildren had a real-life lockdown of their own.

"The youngest one, she was like in kindergarten, and she came home pretty emotional," Skorpik says. "She was in the gym and the teacher was covering the kids with gym mats."

After that he applied for money to develop a sensor for schools to detect and locate gunfire within the building. EAGL Technology of Albuquerque has licensed the technology and it's been installed and tested at Hermosa Elementary School in Artesia, N.M.

The gunshot detectors are each a little bigger than a pack of gum. Scott Simer, the facilities manager for the Artesia school district, points out one system — a detector and then its main frame, "the brains of it," down the hallway.

Simer says the wireless, battery powered sensors can distinguish gunfire from other loud, percussive sounds: a textbook dropping, a ruler slapping a desk or even a firecracker.

"It's sad that we're in a society where we have to have stuff like this," Simer says. "And that we are testing stuff like this in a school. But the reality is, it happens."

Simer believes all this will work if they ever need it. During testing, they tried to fool it.

"We set off some M-80 firecrackers in the school," he says. "It didn't pick 'em up."

When police shot real guns at the school during off hours the alarms went off and the doors locked like they were expected to.

Jennifer Russell is the co-owner of EAGL Technology, which sells the system for $60,000 to $150,000. (The pilot installation at Hermosa Elementary was free.)
"It's automatic," Russell says. "You don't have to have a school resource officer or a principal or a superintendent or a teacher or any kind of administrator activate the system."

She's heard concerns that the automatic locking of doors could leave someone vulnerable in a hallway. The idea is to get as many people behind locked doors as fast as possible — like teachers and students practice in drills, and do in real lockdowns.

"The people in the building can worry more about getting the kids to safety and not having to call 911 when they are sitting under a desk trying to hide from the shooter," Russell says.

It's not the first, or only, gunfire locator system. Most are developed for outdoor use by police departments.

Tabatha Moreau, president of Hermosa Elementary's Parent Teacher Organization, says she's glad the school district has become an early adopter of this type of technology.

"As a parent, you want your school district to do everything they can to help protect our children," she says.

She's glad the sensors are small enough that the students likely aren't aware of them.

"It's not something that the kids see and notice and freak out," Moreau says. "I think they need to know the risks, but I don't want them fretting about it all the time."

Artesia Public Schools plans to put in the detector systems in six more of its schools before classes start in the fall of 2018. Russell says EAGL has seen an increase in inquiries since the Parkland shooting in February.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sensor technology originally made for missiles is being tested to protect children from gunfire in schools. Anna King with the Northwest News Network has the story.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: To get inside Hermosa Elementary in Artesia, N.M, you have to get through one set of doors to get buzzed into another. Then...

SCOTT SIMER: So right here in the hallway, this is our first gunshot detector - is right here, as you'll see. Then right down the hall is the mainframe, the brains of it.

KING: Scott Simer is the facilities manager for the Artesia school district. The gunshot detectors are small - a little bigger than a pack of chewing gum - and use cellphone technology, like microphones. They're wireless, use batteries. They activate when the energy and sound waves of a bullet sets them off. They feed information back to a central computer system.

SIMER: It's sad that we're in a society that we have to have stuff like this and that we are testing stuff like this in a school. But the reality is it happens.

KING: He says the system is designed to distinguish a loud book dropping to the floor from gunfire. It can identify the caliber. It can alert authorities and train cameras on the area where the shots were fired. It can lock doors, sound the building's PA system and lock perimeter doors automatically all within seconds. Simer believes all this will work if they ever need it. During testing, they tried to fool it.

SIMER: We set off some M-80 firecrackers in the school. It didn't pick them up.

KING: They also had local police shoot real guns at the school during off hours. The alarms went off, and the doors locked like they were supposed to.

JENNIFER RUSSELL: It's activated by gunfire.

KING: Jennifer Russell is the co-owner of EAGL Technology of Albuquerque. Her company sells the product for $60,000 to $150,000 but installed it at Hermosa Elementary for free to test it.

RUSSELL: It's automatic. You don't have to have a school resource officer or a principal or a superintendent or a teacher or any kind of administrator activate the system.

KING: She acknowledges concerns that the automatic locking of doors could leave someone vulnerable in a hallway. The idea is to get as many people behind locked doors faster - like teachers and students practice in drills and do in real lockdowns. The president of the Parent-Teacher Organization with Hermosa Elementary says they haven't had too close of a look at the new system but are glad to have anything to help protect kids. Jim Skorpik's grandchildren had a lockdown at their school about four years ago.

JIM SKORPIK: The youngest one, she was like in kindergarten. She came home pretty emotional because she was in the gym, and the teacher was covering the kids with gym mats.

KING: He's now a semi-retired electrical engineer at the federal Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state. For years, he made monitoring sensors for missiles. He says it's all the same military concept as boots on the ground, eyes in the sky.

SKORPIK: Boots on the ground - that's like our little sensor system sitting there. And then eyes in the sky - the sensor system integrates in with cameras.

KING: Skorpik got the idea to apply that principle to schools after his grandkids' lockdown and after Sandy Hook. It's not the first or only gunfire locator system. Most are developed for outdoor use by police departments. Artesia Public Schools plans to put in the detector systems in six more of its schools before classes start again in the fall. And since the Parkland's shooting, EAGL Technology says it's gotten phone calls and emails from other districts and states. For NPR News, I'm Anna King.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARIS ZAX'S "THE BLUE EYE EAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.