How smart buildings can assist public safety response

An arena wired with a range of leading-edge sensors including video, audio, particulate sensors and occupancy detectors demonstrates an essential use case


It is Fall 2021, and everyone is relieved life is returning to a post-COVID pandemic norm. A local university is welcoming its incoming class with a free concert in the basketball arena. Several thousand students take a break at intermission to go up to the concourse, grab some popcorn and socialize. Suddenly shots ring out, and two people fall to the ground. Everyone in the vicinity scatters; some head outside, others hide, still more go back down to the arena floor where the band is readying for its second set. A wave of panic sweeps the arena as more shots are heard.

The two university police officers on duty in the command center at the arena realize something is wrong. One calls for backup while the other runs in the direction of the gunshots. Within minutes several more campus patrol officers arrive on scene and are sent to join the first officer moving around the concourse. Within the next five minutes, backup from the local city police force arrives. The second team of officers pivots in the other direction around the concourse to intercept the moving target. Fortunately, the campus police locate and neutralize the shooter before the two groups converge.

But the incident is far from over. Answers to many other questions are needed:

The goal of the drill was to explore and research smart building technologies' effectiveness to help save lives and improve response.
The goal of the drill was to explore and research smart building technologies' effectiveness to help save lives and improve response. (Center for Innovative Technology)
  • Is there more than one shooter?
  • How many people are injured and need attention?
  • Might there be explosives or incendiary devices hidden in the building?
  • Who is in charge?

In the next few minutes, a local special response team arrives and begins to sweep the building. The team sets up a command center in the parking lot, and EMS support swoops in. University police set up a warm zone on the south side of the arena and support the medics working to locate and treat victims as areas clear. Some city officers and campus police engage in crowd management, seeking to calm the situation, find eyewitnesses and look for a possible second shooter. A public affairs officer coordinates with the university and begins to interact with the gathering press corps. It takes 37 minutes to find the last of the dozen victims, hiding behind a trash receptacle, but it is too late by then. The on-scene commander gives way 90 minutes later to a state response team that engages to help clear the building.

Smart building exercise

The exercise included approximately 80 law enforcement and fire and rescue personnel at GMU’s EagleBank Arena in November 2019.
The exercise included approximately 80 law enforcement and fire and rescue personnel at GMU’s EagleBank Arena in November 2019. (Center for Innovative Technology)

This nightmare scenario was the basis for a major training exercise at the EagleBank Arena at George Mason University (GMU) in November 2019, which was led by GMU's Special Response Team and included approximately 80 law enforcement and fire and rescue personnel from a variety of state, local and university organizations. Many had never had the opportunity to train in such a large facility or interact with such a large number of students, each playing various roles including the shooter, members of the crowd and victims.

But this exercise was even more unique and consequential than just the scale and scope. The Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology (DHS S&T) Directorate supported the exercise. GMU faculty and administrators, as well as industry teams led by the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) and Smart City Works guided the drill to explore and research smart building technologies' effectiveness to help save lives and improve response.

Many leading-edge sensors, including video and audio, shot detectors, particulate sensors, WiFi detectors, occupancy detectors and others, are wired into the arena. The sensors are packaged in an EXIT sign's footprint and brought into a display on a "single pane of glass," including both typical building management systems and the public safety sensors.

The technology allows for 2D and 3D visualizations in the command center and tablets in the incident command center. These sensors need to provide value to the building owner on a day-to-day basis, including cost efficiency, among other things. They have a proven ability to help reduce energy consumption, manage the facility, and reduce insurance costs. If an incident occurs, these same sensors are the ones available to help manage the incident.

The highest value sensors were the real-time occupancy detectors that were viewable on an interior facility map.
The highest value sensors were the real-time occupancy detectors that were viewable on an interior facility map. (Center for Innovative Technology)

Lessons learned

In the debriefs, command-level and tactical responders and technologists commented that this was the first time they had ever joined together to think about how to improve the technology. The lessons were numerous.

The highest value sensors were the real-time occupancy detectors that were viewable on an interior facility map. Understanding where response team members are within the structure in real-time is critical for incident management, particularly where responders from different organizations interact. These sensors effectively help guide the response to where people are and locate all of the 12 scenario victims significantly faster than the search teams. These same sensors can also help building owners reduce energy consumption, helping to cover the costs of installation.

The outside incident commander directly managed and received the information feeds from all sensors as opposed to the direct response teams. This tactic reduced the overall response time and allowed response teams to focus on the direct mission and utilize their standard training and procedures.

Video and audio were most useful on map-based displays rather than the typical panel of 12- or 16-video feeds, which provided only limited situational awareness for people unfamiliar with the building.

The outside incident commander directly managed and received the information feeds from all sensors as opposed to the direct response teams.
The outside incident commander directly managed and received the information feeds from all sensors as opposed to the direct response teams. (Center for Innovative Technology)

The video was most useful forensically, with some analytics able to verify that there was only a single shooter in this scenario. Specialized shot spotters were not much more helpful than simple audio. The response teams were too focused on heading for the stimuli presented in action to manage this kind of external information. The response team leader suggested red/yellow/green visual cues on EXIT signs might indicate where recent activity has triggered sensors within the last minute.

The evolution of these technologies in this and other in-building testbeds continues as part of the ongoing DHS S&T SCITI Labs program with CIT. For scenarios such as a chemical release or secondary incendiary devices, particulate detectors come into play. For example, during installation in the arena, these secondary sensors could detect fresh paint residue in the building. They even could identify popcorn machine activity. Newer versions will have the sensitivity to detect a range of chemical signatures including fire ignition and biological molecules such as COVID-19.

Drone-based versions of the occupancy sensors could fit easily inside an arena to help significantly speed search and rescue.
Drone-based versions of the occupancy sensors could fit easily inside an arena to help significantly speed search and rescue. (Center for Innovative Technology)

The SAFETY Act may help incentivize building owners to install these systems by reducing their liability and changing building codes to allow IoT-enabled EXIT signs. Normal equipment replacement cycles will help increase adoption over time so these sensor capabilities become more common.

Drone-based versions of the occupancy sensors could fit easily inside an arena to help significantly speed search and rescue. Portable versions of the full sensor and electronics suite are also in the works for protective service types of missions or special event gatherings.

Technology is changing rapidly. The public safety technologies tested in this exercise are proven to reduce risk, increase public safety response effectiveness, and save lives. These capabilities can be most effective when the responder community is actively involved in the design, trial and use of new technology from its inception. We encourage you to look for ways to engage!

For more information contact CIT at SCITI.Info@cit.org and visit www.cit.org/vasmart.

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