Failed police radios at Sandy Hook raises common safety issue

Posted by on December 3, 2013

Connecticut State Police two-way radios did not work inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, according to the Sandy Hook Final Report released last week by the Connecticut State’s Attorney.

The failure of the radios to fully work does not appear to have been a major issue in resolving this event. However, it illustrates a fairly common issue we encounter in school security and emergency preparedness consultations across the nation.

School and first responder leaders should be aware if this problem exists in a school under their command.  It is not a difficult question to ask: Do your two-way radios work inside our schools?

But unfortunately, the question too often is not asked or even worse, it is asked and answered, but nothing is done to resolve the problem when radios actually do not work in schools.

It is important not to assume first responder radios work simply because less expensive and/or less sophisticated school two-way radios work inside the school. First responders should visit schools to test their radios firsthand throughout the building.

As a school district security director overseeing security, police and emergency preparedness functions, I personally experienced this issue in a large high school where our in-house system worked well, but our first responders’ 800/900 trucked radio system would not work in all locations.  We learned this by having the police and fire departments come to the school, walk the building, and test their radios.

Ironically, the first responders themselves were surprised how poorly their radios performed in our school environment.  They did not know prior to their visit how sturdy and well-constructed the schools were with their brick, concrete and rebar.

Our solution was to install and internal antenna system in the hallways of the high school. While this solution had a cost attached, it was necessary to ensure we had the radio coverage we needed for emergency response.

The only way to test for this safety challenge is to have the first responders come into school buildings and “key up” their radios in various locations.  School leaders should not accept verbal assurances that “our system works everywhere” if it has not been tested in their school.

Not every location in the community is built like the school house. The only way school and first responders will find out if the radios work is to dedicate the time to testing them in real life conditions within school facilities. Doing so will take some time, but should an emergency ever occur where these communications serve as life lines for help, it will be time well spent.

Chuck Hibbert

School Security Consultant 

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2 thoughts on “Failed police radios at Sandy Hook raises common safety issue

  1. This is a critical component of Law Enforcement-School District planning to ensure dead zones are at least identified. The answer, as Mr Hibbert said is antennae or repeaters placed at some cost to the school budget. It is a very tense situation when police force communications cannot speak to the officers on the ground during a gun call. It places everyone in immediate danger and could potentially cause unintended casualties. It is up to the school district administrators to take the first step in getting law enforcement to come into the schools and do the comms test to see if there are dead zones and at least to map them if the expense is too much to install repeaters or antennae. Unfortunately it seems that some elected officials in North America are still to concerned about other priorities, costs and the impression of looking too aggressive about security to initiate the planning with law enforcement.

  2. Shane says:

    Is it no longer a federal violation to have dissimilar, or incompatible means of communications between seperate public service entities? Since 9/11 legislation has been passed requiring all public safety entities to have cross platform/system communications compliance as much as reasonably capable, including use of common, non-unique, plain language terminology. I must be getting rusty.

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