The Door Knob Dilemma

Do your classroom door handles have locks on them? Are classroom door locks permitted by the fire marshal in your area? The answer to both of these questions is far from straightforward and the answer varies from school to school and fire district to fire district. Classroom door handle inspection is a standard part of SEC’s site security assessment and we always recommend that doors do have locks that can be easily engaged by staff members from the inside of the classroom.  In our experience, many of the schools and child care centers we visit have not been allowed to place locks on their classroom doors.  When asked “why”, the most common response we receive is that their local fire marshal does not permit them.  When it comes to locks on classroom door handle, security and fire-safety ideas can clash. We advise our clients to be aware of the potential clash and advocate for a solution that fits both security and fire-safety criteria.

Choosing a door handle can seem simple enough, so how can it create so much trouble? The type of handle and lock you choose has many implications for fire-safety and security. Let’s start by looking at the implications of a lock from both perspectives:

Security Implications:

From strictly a security perspective, being able to lock a classroom door is critical to secure staff and students in an efficient and effective manner.

  • Teachers should be able to lock their classroom door from the inside, to keep their class safe from intruders. Sometimes evacuation is not an option, or not the safest option. Recently, a school shooter was stopped in his tracks and because frustrated because the teachers locked the doors so he could not access classrooms. In classrooms with small children where evacuation is much more challenging, this is especially important.
  • Teachers can lock the door from the outside, to secure the classroom during the night.
  • Teachers should be able to unlock the door from the outside so that students cannot accidentally, or purposefully lock teachers out of the classroom or get stuck in the room alone.

Fire Implications:

“Egress” is a critical element of all fire safety protocols — being able to evacuate a building as quickly and efficiently as possible. Door handles should not hinder egress in any way. Locks that you have to manually twist or unlock with a key can hinder egress by delaying your exit out of the building. All outer building doors must have locks, but some fire marshals do not allow any internal classroom door handles to have locks because it has the potential to hinder an efficient evacuation of the classroom.

Can you find a lock that satisfies the ability to evacuate the building without interference, but also has the safety features that allow you to lock the door when necessary? Yes, but it may require additional research and advocacy on your behalf.

The Solution

All schools are required to consult with a fire marshal, and SEC always advises schools to adhere to all fire codes. There currently is no national protocol on locked doors, and different fire marshals have different regulations. We have encountered schools where fire marshals have instructed that no locks are permitted on classroom doors. We recently worked with two schools in the same state in fairly close proximity who had each been given different instructions by their respective fire marshal on this issue.

We believe that there is a solution for all schools, that should satisfy the requirements of all fire marshals and adhere to all security standards. We recommend door handles with a lock button in the middle that automatically unlocks when you twist the door to leave. You twist this door handle in the same motion whether it is locked or not, so the lock does not act as a hindrance to evacuation. In our experience, some fire marshals that originally did not allow door handles with locks ended up accepting these push and twist door handles as a safe and effective option.

Oftentimes in life two “good” causes can seem to be competing. How can you choose just one? When you work to satisfy both causes – in this case, safety and fire criteria—the best results occur. Be informed of your options and advocate for yourself and your security needs when working with a fire marshal. Bring the knowledge that other schools have successfully found a solution, and share all of your priorities and concerns with fire marshals. If you need assistance, please feel free to reach out to SEC. By working together and sharing the knowledge we can create safer schools.

 

The Importance of Sensing Danger

SEC’s experts believe that every person follows a specific path when responding to critical incidents or emergencies:

  1. Sense Danger
  2. Evaluate Response Options
  3. Commit to action

Step One, “sensing danger” seems straightforward – you can only respond to an emergency if you know that it exists. However, when it comes down to it, there are many roadblocks that can prevent people from sensing danger as quickly as might be possible. The faster people are aware that an emergency exists, the faster they can go through the rest of the response process and find their way to safety.

The five senses can be major roadblocks in sensing danger. How many times have we heard of someone confusing gunfire for “fireworks?” Historically, people have relied on their senses to alert them to danger – the sound of a gunshot, the smell of fire, the sight of a dangerous person. However, human brains are naturally predisposed to attribute sounds and other sensory observations to things more typical of daily life. This confusion can drastically slow down your response process.

Inability to share information can be another roadblock to sensing danger. Once one person identifies that an emergency exists, they can help other people by quickly sharing that information. If someone sees a gunman but has no way to share that information with the other people in their building, everyone else is at a disadvantage because they cannot begin to execute an emergency response.

The solution to effectively sensing danger is comprehensive alert systems. Unlike relying on your senses, an alert system makes it clear that danger is present. Alert systems can also disseminate information to many people at the same time. Institutions across all industries have set up alert systems. Think about severe weather alerts, alerts to suspicious activity on our bank accounts, or engine alerts on your car.

Schools have almost perfected their fire-alert systems. Schools have fire alarms that alert building occupants of a fire and automatically alert local fire departments of the emergency. All staff and students are trained to understand the alert, so when they hear it, they immediately sense the danger and can begin to respond in carefully crafted ways. It has been years since a child has died from a fire in a school building. Fire safety in school is proof that comprehensive alert systems do work.

While schools are increasingly well prepared for violent incidents including active shooter, fire preparation is generations ahead of where we are for violent attacks. We can take many lessons from the “fire-preparation” movement to apply to active shooter situations. Efficient alerts are one key concept.

In an active-violence situation, an effective alert will clearly and quickly inform others of the violence. Schools should utilize “plain-language” alerts (i.e. “Alert – there is a shooter in the building,”) or conduct drills to train students and teachers to immediately recognize alerts sounds. When the alert goes out quickly, people can begin to respond to the danger before they are physically confronted by it.

What specific alerts do we recommend? There are some great high-tech systems on the market, but many are not widely used or available. Your alert system does not need to be too elaborate or expensive. Phone PA systems, email, or text, are common alert systems, but keep in mind that these have their limitations. Many PA systems are not accessible by all, the speakers are not loud enough, and people don’t have the immediate enough access to phones and email to make those methods useful. Organizations can take lower cost steps by utilizing tools like boat air horns, coast guard whistles, or plain language voice alerts that can quickly be spread around a facility.

The key to a good emergency alert system is having a plan that is easily accessible and understood by all. How does your school plan to alert people in the event of an active shooter situation, or other emergencies? Develop a plan and share it will all stakeholders. If you need assistance developing a strong alert system, reach out to SEC.

 

Is Your Secure Entryway Really Secure?

During the several hundred site assessments Secure Education Consultants (SEC) has conducted throughout the country, we typically find schools and childcare centers employing tools to secure their entry. Unfortunately, we also find that said tools are not being supported by appropriate protocols or being used by people who are sufficiently trained. We find security lapses like doors being opened for visitors without any sort of vetting, cameras that do not provide an effective view of the entryway, doors propped open for convenience, and doors held open for more than one visitor. These lapses diminish the benefits that physical security systems can provide. At SEC, we believe that unless you align the physical and technical security measures with effective protocols and appropriate staff training, your secure entry system may just end up being an expensive doorbell.

 

Install Physical and Technical Security Systems

At SEC, we believe that minimally, a secure entryway must have the following components: locked doors, a clear view of the entryway (either via a window or camera), and a way to verbally communicate with visitors prior to allowing entry (such as through an intercom or phone system).

Additional components of secure entryways could include elements like glass supported with safety and security window film, ballistic glass, biometric readers, uniquely coded pin pads, and an additional locked door placed prior to entry into the main facility.

Installing security features can be overwhelming for school administrators and childcare center owners. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Physical and technical security features need to be tailored to the individual location. Is the camera in an acceptable place in the entryway? Is the camera monitor in a location that can be effectively viewed by staff? What type of glass or film should be installed on the windows? Where is the appropriate location to place the remote release button for the front door? Schools and childcare centers can consult with SEC to discuss and physical or technical security features. We have found that our customized, proven training techniques enable schools to get the most out of their physical and technical security features. We have also found that allowing us to partner with architects and builders from the onset of construction or renovation projects allows schools to effectively maximize the fiscal resources they are dedicating to security features.

Establish Entry Protocol

Once you have the physical and technical elements in place, schools and childcare centers need a formal policy that dictates what staff should do when a visitor arrives. This protocol should include:

  • Entryways that are monitored by a person or a camera at all times.
  • Clear signage should be posted to direct visitors and advise them on appropriate entry procedures.
  • Staff members should have a clear understanding of who is allowed entry into the school.
  • Visitors should be vetted by staff members prior to entry using a combination of visual and audio tools.
  • Once visitors are allowed entry, front office personnel should do additional vetting including obtaining additional information regarding the purpose of the visit, asking for identification and requiring visitors to sign in prior to allowing access to the main facility.
  • Staff members should not allow entry unless they feel confident about both the person and the purpose of the visit.
  • Staff should be well-versed on people who may not be allowed to enter the building. Custody battles and domestic disputes have the potential to turn someone who was once a safe visitor into a potential threat. In our most recent blog, When Problems at Home Create Danger at School, we reviewed the April 2017 San Bernardino school shooting. The school staff allowed the shooter to enter the school without question because they were unaware that the shooter’s relationship with the teacher at the school had become estranged.
  • Staff members should have the capacity to call for assistance from either other staff members or first responders in an efficient manner.

 

Train the Staff

Schools must provide comprehensive training to all staff members responsible for monitoring entryways. Staff must be comfortable utilizing the physical and technical design features and be fluent on the proper entry protocol. The staff must also be able to effectively vet visitors and to identify suspicious or potentially dangerous behaviors. People who are about to commit a violent act are likely to present observable signs. Such people may be dressed inappropriately for the weather. A big coat on a hot day could be a way to conceal a gun. The suspicious visitor may be sweating or shaking. These are just a few examples of what staff should be trained to look for. When the staff is able to recognize these signs, they are able to question suspicious-looking visitors more thoroughly.

In training, one of the most important concepts to reinforce is to not be afraid of inconveniencing people. In our culture, we are often uncomfortable making a visitor wait outside for any period of time. We also don’t want to seem impolite, which is why we hold the door for others, even though they may be unknown individuals. When our SEC staff arrives at a new schools or childcare center, we are often allowed entry without any questioning. It is important to train staff to give them the confidence to take the time they need to do the appropriate vetting. Staff should ask as many questions as necessary until they feel comfortable.

When a trained and empowered staff follows well-established protocols in a school with well-designed and employed physical and technical security features, the building becomes a safer place for everyone. The integration of these three elements is what makes a secure entryway truly secure.