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Every Second Counts with Restaurant and retail security and safety

When it comes to restaurant and retail security and safety, how quickly can you notify response teams? Unfortunately, there have been far too many active shooter incidents across the country in the last 14 years, averaging more than one a month for many years, including devastating school shootings, such as Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and even more recently, shootings in public areas such as San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida.

Most facilities have an emergency response protocol in place for situations such as an active shooter, but there are several factors that affect whether the situation tips from an emergency scenario into being deadly. Those factors include staff and personnel preparation, the facility’s emergency response plan, the security system, and the response time of law enforcement to these situations. The first two factors can be addressed by diligent administrative leadership, but the second two factors are intertwined and often restricted by the technology implemented in the premises. However, in the last year, the security industry has seen a greater emphasis placed on combining high-functioning security systems with mechanisms that ultimately will serve to speed law enforcement’s response times in crisis situations.

According to a 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, the average response time of law enforcement to an emergency situation is 5 to 6 minutes. Speeding that response time is a priority in crisis situations; those first 5 minutes are critical as the situation escalates. Law enforcement and first responders, trained and prepared, are the best resource for mitigating and resolving threats. Since Columbine, perhaps the most notorious of school shooting incidents, two things have changed in how law enforcement responds in these situations: what they are going to do when they respond and how they are going to enter the building. Providing law enforcement with critical information about a crisis scenario, such as where in the building it is taking place, who is involved, and when the initial call for response went out, means increasing the accuracy and speed of law enforcement response. In order to achieve these ends, restaurants and other retail facilities around the country have begun implementing a rapid emergency response system (RERS).

While a rapid emergency response system can be easily integrated into an existing system, on its own, it is not a traditional security system. It is not a perimeter security system; it does not utilize access control technology; it is not a mass notification system. Each one of those components can be implemented into a facility’s overall security system to aid in the protection of the actual building, but none of those pieces solves the fundamental problem of rapid law enforcement notification. They are pieces of a larger puzzle.

Rapid emergency response systems are specifically designed to speed the response times of law enforcement and first responders and notify building occupants when serious or threatening incidents occur within a facility.

During the time period covered by the study, of the shootings in commercial settings, more than two-thirds (69%) occurred in public commercial spaces, and most of those were committed by shooters with no affiliation with the business. These public areas can have security guards deployed, but in most cases, security personnel are not armed or properly trained for armed conflicts, and thus, not equipped to handle or de-escalate an active shooter or crisis scenario. Public commercial areas have large numbers of the public present at any given time during normal work hours, so in a crisis scenario, getting trained first responders on-site as quickly as possible is paramount.

An RERS in these spaces can serve several key security needs: foremost, rapid law enforcement notification. Second, in areas like a restaurant or large retail setting, providing specific location information for first responders is critical, as is using the electronic resources provided by the command center, such as building layouts, two-way communications with designated occupants, etc. Using automated public address (PA) notifications also can help prevent mass panic by quickly communicating the risk, over the entire facility, to all building occupants, allowing them to take precautionary measures earlier as they see fit. In many of these large retail settings, emergency notification occurs from person to person and spreads like a wave of terror from the incident location outward. Improving communication throughout the entire facility reduces the panic wave and provides patrons the chance to take precautions even if they are far away from the incident location.

Another consideration is the high rate of turnover in retail settings. Holidays, peak sales seasons, or general turnover can result in the need to potentially train many new — and often temporary — employees on proper emergency response procedures. Implementing an RERS can effectively allow these employees and employers to develop more efficient protocols that simplify and reduce the responsibilities of the employees in a panic situation. To notify onsite security and law enforcement they simply have to activate an RERS device. There isn’t any need to remember whom to call first — onsite security or police — what numbers to dial, etc. It all happens automatically with the simple pull of the level. With the most critical task completed — notifying first responders — they can move on to their other responsibilities according to the protocol.

A rapid emergency response system is built on four key attributes: fast and efficient two-way communication, simplicity, ease of implementation, full supervision and monitoring capability.

Why RERS Are Effective for Restaurants and Retail Facilities
Rapid emergency response systems have several factors going for them when it comes to restaurants and retail facilities. These settings often lack security personnel, so the majority of people in the space are untrained patrons. If an emergency situation were to occur in a restaurant, summoning the trained emergency response teams as quickly as possible becomes the most important factor. Additionally, most systems now utilize wireless technology, eliminating the need for retrofitting via construction. There are other considerations for restaurant and retail facility managers as well:

Fast and Efficient Two-Way Communication
RERS must communicate as quickly as possible — and indicate the location where the activation occurred. The core of the system is built upon fast and accurate notification times to law enforcement. When an active threat is sighted in a facility, the clock starts ticking. Precious seconds, or even minutes, can elapse before an occupant has the opportunity to get to a phone to call 911.

An important component to RERS is a two-way communication capability. A rapid emergency response system includes a control center, a web-based communication portal that acts as the “hub” between facility stakeholders, law enforcement and building occupants. After the pull stations and strobe alerts have been activated, the control center notifies stakeholders via automated text, email and voice notifications of the situation and instructs them regarding what emergency protocol procedures to take. 

The pre-defined command group can securely access the communications portal via any internet-enabled device, establishing a secure, two-way communication that coordinates first responders, communicates with occupants and manages the overall situation quickly and efficiently. As mentioned, the system also instantly initiates emergency protocols and links the command group with live security camera videos, visual point identification (VPI) diagrams of the facility and emergency preparedness documents to ensure all vital information is available quickly and easily. The faster central command and control communications are established, the faster responsive action can take place — thereby improving the safety and quick resolution of emergency situations because when emergencies occur, lost time can cost lives.

Simplicity
A rapid emergency response system installed in a facility has many intuitive touch points. It is visually intuitive for daily building occupants and visitors alike, and it also includes an auditory alert system that can be programmed with a customized message. Since the pull station is visually familiar, as it looks very similar to a traditional “fire alarm” pull station, the operation is already ingrained in the minds of building occupants whether in the facility daily or a visitor. This is important for many types of facilities, including churches, schools and malls. Some of these facilities, like malls and churches, where most occupants and building users are untrained, need an emergency system to be visually intuitive. For the visually and/or hearing impaired, the system includes several blue strobe lights — to not be confused with the fire alarm strobe lights — throughout the building that flash to alert occupants that a crisis situation is taking place and to engage in emergency protocols or personal protection.

Ease of Implementation
Many facilities throughout the country rely on an aged infrastructure. Because a rapid emergency response system utilizes a highly secure wireless communications network that is completely dedicated to response alerts and is independent of other building systems, it can be retrofitted into any facility. The ease of implementation is key for many facilities that may not be able to either afford or physically undergo extensive remodeling. These factors should not prevent a facility from being able to implement the security infrastructure necessary to serve its occupants. When an RERS is installed in a facility and is connected to local law enforcement, the secure wireless network is dedicated exclusively to response alerts — meaning it will operate without worrying about the building’s Wi-Fi network going down in an emergency. The other advantage of the RERS wireless network is that it is flexible and cost-effective. Because the system is wireless, it is easy to move pull stations, strobe lights and other components around easily as a building’s needs change over time without incurring much cost. It also communicates over longer distances making it possible to extend the RERS system beyond the confines of four walls. It can be extended to the playground, sports fields, parking lots and more.

Additionally, an ideal rapid emergency response system can be easily integrated with existing security tools, such as cameras, access control measures and gunshot detection, as well as any fire safety mechanisms in place in the building.

Full Supervision and Monitoring
Rapid emergency response systems are fully supervised and continually monitored by a third party, meaning, the system’s functionality is under constant supervision. Because it is a critical life safety system, it demands monitoring even when it is operating without problems. The third-party monitoring system ensures that if a battery is running low, or some facet of the communication infrastructure is malfunctioning, a supervisor will notify the facility manager of the issue. Additionally, should the building itself lose power, the system is backed up by its own dedicated series of batteries.

RERS was designed with law enforcement’s input to create a dedicated system that will help speed both response times and the initiation of precautionary measures within facilities. The intuitive functionality and two-way communication capability means less confusion and a reduction in the ‘panic factor’ that can hinder response in crisis situation. These critical components enable a system that can provide detailed information on where the incident is located, and when the notification was received, so law enforcement knows exactly where to go when arriving on the scene. Additionally, with the onsite notification to building occupants, police will arrive to a facility armed with better information and to an occupancy already engaged in emergency protocol response.

Restaurants and retail facilities must, unfortunately, be prepared for the realities of today. Starting with a strong plan for emergency situations, ensuring that onsite personnel are properly trained, and, when possible, incorporating tools to quickly summon law enforcement and emergency response teams can be the ultimate difference maker.

— John Shales is co-founder and CMO of BluePoint Alert Solutions, a provider of rapid emergency response systems (RERS) designed to help speed the response times of police and other first-responders in the event of an active shooter or other emergency situation where lives are at stake. Shales leads BluePoint Alert Solutions in product development, system integration and marketing strategy. Email the author at johnshales@bluepointalert.com.

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