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Hillsborough County schools to launch new $7.6-million crisis alert system

One of the new crisis alert ID transponders Hillsborough County Public Schools will be providing to teachers and staff. [Courtesy of the Hillsborough County School District]
One of the new crisis alert ID transponders Hillsborough County Public Schools will be providing to teachers and staff. [Courtesy of the Hillsborough County School District]
Published Jul. 23

TAMPA — Hillsborough County teachers and staff will soon have a faster way to call for help or trigger campus lockdowns in an active shooter situation.

Starting in August, the school district will provide about 27,000 district employees with hand-sized transponder ID badges which, when pressed repeatedly, send an emergency message to school resource officers and administrators.

The cost of the "CrisisAlert'' system this year is roughly $7.6-million, school officials said at a Tuesday news conference. It will be paid for from money set aside by state lawmakers following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

"This system empowers every teacher and every staff member to call for help," superintendent Jeff Eakins said. "It also ensures every student and staff member is aware of an emergency anywhere on campus."

The program is run by the Georgia-based security company CENTEGIX. All teachers and staff in the district will receive training. It's expected to be rolled out district-wide a few weeks after the start of school in August.

Here's how it works:

There are two types of crisis alert notifications. If a teacher or staff member needs help dealing with an issue like a medical emergency, they can click their transponder button three times. That alerts school resource officers and crisis management teams to the problem.

If there is a life-threatening situation, such as a school shooter, teachers or staff can trigger a campus lockdown by repeatedly clicking the transponder for about six to seven seconds.

When that happens, newly-installed strobe lights in school buildings will flash and a message telling people what to do will be broadcast via the school intercom.

No phones or walkie talkies are needed. District computers and other electronic devices will also display a warning.

School resource officers can call for law enforcement backup after receiving a lockdown alert, then rush to the scene, said John Newman, the district's chief of security and emergency management.

Administrators can also use the system to activate a lockdown.

The Hillsborough County School Board approved an initial three-year contract with CENTEGIX to run the system at a meeting in May. The contract allows for five three-year renewals, subject to negotiation.

Newman said the $7.6 million in grant money will fund the system's initial installation and upkeep during the 2019-20 school year. And it will likely cover some costs after that, he said.

Maintenance should be minimal, Newman said. The transponders run on batteries that last about five years, according to CENTEGIX's website. The strobe lights are battery-run, too.

Eakins, who is stepping down from his position at the end of the year, said that as far as he knows, Hillsborough will be the only school district in Florida that uses the alert system.

"We believe this system brings a level of simplicity to a very complex situation," Eakins said.

Elijah Seay, 17, a rising senior at Lennard High School in Ruskin, was at the news conference. He called the program reassuring.

Shootings like Parkland, which left 17 people dead, are always in the back of his mind, he said.

"It's become too common," Seay told the Tampa Bay Times. "When I go to school, there's no day where I don't go, 'Okay, I need to be careful. Make sure everything's okay. I know where deputies are. I know where teachers are. I know where exits are.' "

Contact Sam Ogozalek at sogozalek@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3430. Follow @SamOgozalek.

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