Colorado’s SAFER Grant Funds Interoperability

School Access for Emergency Funding (SAFER) Grant

In Colorado, the Office of School Safety oversees several grants to improve school safety. One of those grants is the School Access for Emergency Funding or SAFER Grant. The SAFER grant funds interoperability. Technically, it aims to increase access to interoperable communications technology to improve school safety. Below, we discuss what the grant funds, what is interoperability, how SchoolSAFE fits the grant requirements, and the next steps you can take to make your schools safer.

What exactly does SAFER fund?

The grant program provides money to districts/schools and public safety communications networks for needed interoperable hardware, software, and training solutions.

As written into law, the grant requires the solution to have the aforementioned three components. This allows for seamless communications between existing school district communications systems and first responder communications systems (interoperability, see below). That’s all fancy talk for the easier summary: The SAFER Grant funds solutions that allow separate two-way radio networks to speak to each other when needed. Find the formal rules in section 24-33.5-2104 (1-5) here.

What is interoperability and why is it important?

Interoperability is the ability for different entities to communicate with each other when they otherwise couldn’t. What does this mean? Let’s look at public safety and how they communicate. Public safety includes law enforcement, fire, EMTs, 9-1-1 public safety answering points. They have different tools to be able to speak to each other. They have a two-way radio on their hip or shoulder, they have cell phones, maybe a computer in their car, another radio in their vehicle, etc. Public safety’s radio network, out of necessity, covers a lot of area and is therefore expensive.

School districts and schools operate with two-way radios, too, but their networks are smaller to cover the area of the district/schools and are more cost-effective. These two radio networks normally do not allow for communications to occur between each other. They’re disparate. But! When these networks connect, when everyone can talk together when they otherwise couldn’t, we have interoperability. Interoperability improves the response because all parties can work together with better communication.

Where does SchoolSAFE Fit?

This is where SchoolSAFE comes in. We provide interoperable communications between public safety and schools. SchoolSAFE is activated after a 9-1-1 call. A dispatcher, through Memorandums of Understanding put in place through the program, connects public safety radios to district and school radios during an emergency. The varying groups can speak to each other on a public safety-designated radio channel. An added bonus: the dispatcher has bridging (connecting) options. They can select one specific school to bridge, a feeder area if needed (a few elementary schools, middle school(s) and high school), or the entire district. With the event over, the dispatcher at the 9-1-1 dispatch center disconnects the networks. Everyone is back to their own separate two-way radio networks. 

There is a district component, too. The safety director at the district can be in charge of bridging within their district if needed. They can’t control public safety radio channels, that’s for the pros. So, if there needs to be a district-wide announcement via two-way radio, poof! SchoolSAFE has it covered.

SchoolSAFE is fully SAFER grant-compliant. The solution provides hardware at the schools and software that turns the connection from public safety radios to the school radios on and off. The program provides a robust training program (if we do say so ourselves) that includes safety teams at the schools, district personnel, PSAPs, and other involved responders. We work in step with the districts’ compliance with the Colorado School Response Framework. We also help train school safety teams at each school and we solidify or improve the community partnerships that are so vital between public safety responders and school and district personnel. 

So How Does it Work In Real Life?

For example, at dismissal time, a student is hit by a car in the school parking lot. The safety team at the school will speak on their radio to get the details that are important for a high-quality 9-1-1 call. Then, they will try to clear the area, get the school nurse out to the student, help direct traffic away from the student, etc. In the meantime, the 9-1-1 dispatcher bridges SchoolSAFE. Next, the dispatcher directs the ambulance personnel to go to a designated channel.

They announce to the school safety team that SchoolSAFE is bridged (connected), and the safety team tells the ambulance to come in on a specific side street or area of the building to avoid the line of cars. The team provides the pertinent information about the student who has been hit, and/or answers questions from the EMTs. All of this real-time communication helps speed up the response, getting the student faster and more effective care.

Next Steps

For the school districts in Colorado, check back here. As discussed, the SAFER grant funds interoperability. We’ll be sharing the Office of School Safety’s grant announcement when it’s on Colorado’s Office of School Safety’s website. Contact us to learn more about interoperable communications, the SAFER Grant, and how we can help improve your school/district’s safety.

Supercharge Your Tabletop Exercise

The Importance of The Tabletop Exercise

We have been helping districts with tabletop exercise for years. Currently, schools are returning to in-person teaching and learning. The stress and concern related to the pandemic continues to affect students, staff, and their families. The education community is very aware of the potential mental health issues that accompany this ongoing stress and concern. Fortunately, the community is taking steps to improve early recognition and intervention for those needing special care. As we return to the classroom, it is important for us to recognize that school safety risks are also impacted by this concern. Preparedness is more important than ever. Where do we start? It begins with training of the school safety team and other staff regarding their roles and responsibilities during an emergency at school.

What Is A Tabletop Exercise?

A tabletop exercise allows a school safety team to put their safety training to a test in a safe and relatively stress-free setting. Tabletop exercises (TTX) are discussion-based exercises regarding a hypothetical, simulated emergency scenario. The TTX is intended to improve general awareness and validate plans and procedures to enhance conceptual understanding of roles and responsibilities, identify potential tactics and responses, uncover gaps and areas for improvement, and achieve changes in perceptions.

So How Do You Start?

The following steps can supercharge a tabletop exercise assumes that two-way radios are a part of a school’s emergency communication plan.

  1. Choose a school-based emergency incident and write a 2 to 3 sentence description
  2. Gather the participants (with their radios) and explain the exercise process
  3. Send the person who will be in charge of the incident (the Incident Commander) out of the room with their radio
  4. Display the scenario on a screen to the participants in the room
  5. Ask one person to summarize the scenario and use the radio to report it to the Incident Commander (IC)
  6. The IC will use that information to size up the situation, form a response plan, and begin assigning response tasks to the participants by using the radio to communicate. Example: direct a specific person to call 911. Continue this for 60-90 seconds or until the IC runs out of task assignments
  7. Bring the IC back into the room and conduct a “hotwash” to discuss how effective the radio communications were: what went well with the task assignments and the order of the assignments, and what could be improved.

Finally, during the hotwash, discussions of who should do what and when are valuable to help people understand and apply their training regarding their roles and responsibilities during a particular emergency event. Using the radio to “work” the scenario brings a level of realism to the tabletop discussions that helps to supercharge the learning.
Want to discuss further? Contact us!