The scene outside West Liberty-Salem School following a student shooting Friday. Marshall Gorby/Staff

Technology developed in Ohio could detect school shootings in seconds

New technology could help save lives by calling first responders to the scene of a school emergency, even before people start dialing 9-1-1.

The SiteGuard Active Shooter Response system, developed by the Columbus-based nonprofit research and development organization Battelle, is designed to detect gunfire of any kind in a school, office complex or factory.

Wesley Pirkle, a senior research scientist at Battelle, said they began by seeking answers to a series of questions about the weapons most often used in school shootings. They looked closely at everything from handguns to sniper rifles and assault weapons.

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“What kinds of sound do they make? What kind of frequencies are involved in that signature?” Pirkle said. “And we look for characteristics that are similar to all of those. And we look at other sounds that might be similar to gunshots but are not.”

At the West Liberty-Salem High School shooting on Jan. 20, first responders were on the scene within minutes after multiple people called 9-1-1.

With the Battelle system, when a gunshot is detected, police are notified within two to three seconds through a computerized system and are provided with a stream of information from the scene to help first responders, the school’s staff and students.

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Pirkle said it’s faster and more accurate than relying on witnesses to call police, especially when they are confused about whether they are being faced with an active shooter or something else.

“They heard a noise. Was that actually a gunshot? Should I be going to our lockdown procedures?” Pirkle said people often ask themselves in the early moments of an emergency.

When the system detects a shooter on the move, it tracks their whereabouts and maps movements for first responders to see in real time. The closest security camera provides a live video feed of the area where the gunfire has been detected while a text alert goes to students and staff with up-to-date information on the best way to flee to safety or seek shelter in place.

So far a few school districts in the Columbus area have had the SiteGuard system installed. Battelle is currently marketing the system to schools, universities and a variety of businesses that have large complexes to protect.

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One concern among customers, Pirkle said, is the potential for false alarms.

“If the system goes off and says ‘there’s a gunshot,’ you may have first responders coming, you may institute lockdown procedures, things go out to the media perhaps, and people are concerned about that,” he said. “And so it is very important that the system is accurate every time.”

The system does distinguish the difference between a gunshot and a loud noise like a door slamming or a heavy object falling to the floor, he said, so it’s been very accurate so far.

Pirkle believes eventually systems like Battelle’s will be as commonplace as smoke detectors and will be installed in every school building being constructed across the country.

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