The Blount County school board plans to buy a new safety messaging system designed to cut response times from minutes to seconds, and the county plans to use it, too.

At the touch of a button or click of an app, the Situational Awareness and Response Assistant (SARA) system would send customized alerts and views from the nearest cameras directly to the Blount County E-911 Communications Center.

“What we’re attempting to do here is get ready for when something bad happens,” Director Rob Britt told Board of Education members at a work session before Thursday’s meeting. “For us to say it won’t happen to us is just too naïve.”

The board voted unanimously, with member Scott Helton absent, to approve funding for the $468,000 purchase, more than half of which would come from state safe schools grants.

The board plans to use nearly $209,000 from its fund balance, which is similar to a savings account, and the county is expected to chip in about $29,000. The Blount County Commission would have to approve the spending later this month, but the county has been working with the schools on the plan.

‘Duress’ button

The SARA software from Status Solutions is designed to work with existing systems and to be customized as to who receives alerts and in what form, including by phone, two-way radio, text messages and even a public address system.

Currently when a fire alarm sounds, school staff have no way to know if there is a fire or if a shooter pulled the alarm. SARA monitors where alerts originate through vector mapping, like GPS, and displays the nearest camera views.

Blount County Schools plans to purchase lanyard-style duress buttons, at a cost of about $160 each, for staff at its two high schools, four middle schools and alternative school campus. Anyone on the system, including staff at the 14 elementary schools, could send an alert through a computer or mobile device.

“We wanted to be sure that we were able to provide everybody something Day 1,” including county employees outside of the schools, said Scott Piotti, business development director for Status Solutions, the company selling the SARA technology.

Blount County’s director of general services, Don Stallions, pointed to the live camera display during the demonstration at the work session and told school board members, “That’s what sold this system for me.”

“That will also come up on the screens at the com center,” explained Stallions, who also serves as chief of the Townsend Area Volunteer Fire Department. “So when that duress button is pushed or the keystroke is hit, that pops up at 911 where the dispatchers sit in front of their screens. That takes over their screens, so immediately they know there’s an issue, William Blount High School office, and they’re looking at the camera. So when they’re dispatching they can tell who it is, what it looks like, what’s going on, and then they can look at the other cameras and follow that individual out. You all will get it immediately, too.”

Although county offices won’t initially have duress buttons, Stallions said the plan ultimately is to have the SARA system at the courthouse, Justice Center, Operations Center, probation office, animal center and public library.

Working with an identification badge system already in place, SARA will display a photo of the person who pressed the alarm.

The SARA system also works with other existing technology, such as fire panels and door alarms. It could even be linked to vape detectors and added to school buses, although those aren’t part of the current proposal. “We can detect anything we want,” Piotti said.

The county will have a server for the system, and it will work off the county network.

“The internet can go down completely … and SARA will still work,” Pioitti explained in response to a question from school board Chair Debbie Sudhoff.

The system can be customized in many ways. For example, cafeteria staff could push a button to notify the school nurse of an allergic reaction.

The monitoring can be set up across the entire campus, including ball fields and maintenance sheds.

When Sudhoff asked about the need for more cameras, Britt said most sections of the school buildings have cameras, but they would like to add more. Pioitti said the work Status Solutions does to set up the SARA system can help determine more efficient deployment of cameras and recommended waiting to make decisions about adding any.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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