Finance panel backs funds to upgrade school emergency communications
Nearly three-quarters of a million dollars was approved Monday by the Board of Finance to upgrade security at the town's eight schools with a new district-wide communications system and two-way radios.
The vote on the $743,114 appropriation was 6-0 with one abstention.
Elio Longo, the school system's business manager, said the mass communication system would be a modification to the existing fire alarm system and would include adding about 408 speakers throughout the district buildings.
It would create a mass public address system and provide coverage to both internal and external areas, with coverage including areas like school corridors and other sites outside the dead zones in existing coverage, finance board members were told.
Police Chief Dale Call said the system can be programmed for lockdown and shelter-in-place emergencies. "It will certainly work to get a short, simple message to everyone at the same time," he said. Call added the system "can fit many different emergencies in the building," not just an intruder.
Long said 190 portable, digital two-way radios will replace the analog radios now in use. The radios will have a useful life of from 10 to 15 years, finance members were told.
Annual maintenance of both the mass communications system and the radios would be put into the school district's operating budget, Longo said.
Brian Stern, a finance board member, asked how school officials will decide who gets the new radios. Superintendent of Schools Elliot Landon said "people carrying" the radios would include principals, assistant principals, nurses, custodians and anyone outside.
PTA officers gave support to the funding, with Wendy Hunter, the Staples High School PTA president, reading a letter of support from Principal John Dodig. He said with 1,900 teenage students at the high school, "we need a way to communicate immediately."
Selectman Avi Kaner also offered support, adding the school system should look into providing better cell phone coverage at the high school. "What if someone on the third floor had an emergency and there was no cell phone coverage there, "he said. "Maybe we should press for that."
Longo said a cell phone carrier has already expressed an interest in doing that.
Finance member Michael Rea said that corporate headquarters and airports have similar "mass communication systems," adding "are our kids any less important?"
Board member Janis Collins said she was impressed by school officials' homework on the security project, and said the finance board was provided with valuable information about the requests Monday night.
"In my opinion communication and notification are important," she said. "I really support this."
Stern said the upgrades were recommended in the wake of massacre of 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
"That was a one in a million chance," Stern said. But, he added, the systems could also be used during incidents when someone is suffering a food allergy or heart attack. "It will help get the information out and everyone is safer," he said.
Collins said getting messages to those outside a school has been a concern for her. "Now I'm seeing that will be addressed," she said.
Finance Chairman John Pincavage said that after hearing "all the technical aspects" he felt "more comfortable than he did two days ago" about voting for the funding request.
But member Tom Lasersohn said he was "torn" on the issue, despite the fact he has "two kids in school who should get help immediately" if they need it. Lasersohn was the one abstention on appropriation.
Of the total 743,114 request, $480,630 would be spent to enhance the existing fire alarm system with mass notification alert capability. That amount included the lowest bid of $457,743, and a 5 percent contingency of $22,887. About $86,982 would be recouped by a state grant, according to the request.
Also, $262,484 was requested for the 190 digital, two-way radio system at all of the town's schools. The low bid on the project was $249,985 with a 5 percent, or $12,499 contingency.
The measures are among the recommendations that came from the security audit conducted by Kroll Inc., a consulting firm hired to assess school security.
In July, the Representative Town Meeting approved $500,000 to install protective film over school windows.