Rather than being stuck outside a school unable to get inside the building in the midst of a school shooting or other emergency, local police departments are turning to key fobs to assure quick entry and response.
Many police officers already carry such fobs — similar to the device on sets of newer car keys — for their own buildings. Now with the cooperation of some local schools, they can use them on the secure, electronically operated school building doors as well.
The system is new to Crown Point, where officers have access to all doors at every school in the district.
Until recently, police had to enter through the main doors and be buzzed in like everyone else.
"Which is fine, but we have to plan for the worst-case scenario," Crown Point Police Chief Pete Land said.
"We proposed (to the schools) that we need to have immediate access to every entry point that they have. With everything going on in today's society, we have to plan for this."
Key fobs issued to officers will be programmed for all-hours access to Crown Point school facilities.
Land said there are restrictions. If an officer wants to attend a basketball game, for instance, he or she cannot use the fob.
"It is a pretty solid policy that gives us that flexibility to have that access, yet follow the school rules in those situations that we are there but it is not an emergency, or if it is personal business," he said.
The memorandum of understanding between police and the school district also calls for each officer to be issued a school ID card. Some private schools are planning to join the memorandum, including St. Mary Catholic Community School.
Other school districts, towns following suit
St. John Police Chief James Kveton said all town police officers have magnetic cards that give them access to all doors at public schools in the town.
"The world we live in today is one where access to schools from outside must be regulated and controlled to limit any possible threat from entering the building," Kveton said.
"The first step to doing that is to make sure all doors are locked with a single controlled point of access, which is usually the school's main office door. For the purpose of emergency response to the school by fire or police personnel, immediate access to the threat, be it a fire, a violent person or a medical emergency, is critical to minimize the danger or provide timely medical treatment. Having access keys in the hands of all emergency responders is critical to accomplish that goal."
Valparaiso Police Department Sgt. Mike Grennes said the city's officers have had access to Valparaiso Community Schools for several years. Duneland schools Assistant Superintendent Jim Goetz said they have been in communication with local police about giving them similar access to school buildings.
"Previously, they did not have access," he said. "We are now supplying them with a fob."
Michigan City Assistant Police Chief Kevin Urbanczyk said its officers also now use key fobs after realizing in early 2013 it was important for officers to have immediate access to the schools in an emergency.
"We realized it was important, especially with the size of our schools and the size of our city, to increase response time and get our officers in quickly," he said.
Urbanczyk said the fobs also allow them to address other issues, such as if an alarm goes off at a school on a Saturday.
Urbanczyk said the program is currently just for the city's public schools. Private schools do not have fob systems yet, but the department is in the process of working that out with them.
Portage Police Chief Troy Williams said his department has swipe-card access for all schools in the Portage Township School system. Officers there already had swipe cards for the Police Department building and by working with the school system's IT department, they were able to combine school access onto one card.
"The concept of having access to our schools makes perfect sense in the event there is an emergency inside the building," Williams said.
Porter County police take it further, with apps and CCTV
Porter County police currently have emergency fob access to all Valparaiso schools, Hebron schools, and have key cards for all Portage Township schools. They are still working on it for all other schools in the county.
Porter County Sheriff Dave Reynolds said they met recently with superintendents, and they all agreed to it.
Reynolds said it will tie in well with their current alert system that gives teachers access, too.
Porter County police also have a cellphone app, HERO911, which is free to all law enforcement officers and notifies them whenever there is an active-shooter situation anywhere in the area.
County schools also use an app called School Guard that sends an alert to officers to respond to an emergency situation.
Reynolds said they also presented superintendents with another memorandum of understanding that would allow them to access closed-circuit television.
"If there is a shooting at a school, we need to be able to access the CCTV," he said. "The MOU basically says that in the case of an emergency we want the Sheriff's Department to have the authority to access the CCTV live."
Reynolds said in that scenario they would enter the 911 center and basically take over the dispatch, making it a command center in which a police officer would dispatch to the responding officers what the officer is seeing.
"It makes perfect sense," he said.