Schaumburg Police/School Lockdown: Are Police Keeping Up With Information Age in New Era of “Unidentified Emergency Situations?”


Tuesday about 10:00 a.m. Schaumburg Police Department was testing its emergency alerting system via Schaumburg’s 911 dispatch center, Northwest Central Dispatch when an error occurred that caused a false alarm that caused initiation of school lock downs.

Twitter alert from the Village of Schaumburg after a school lock-down message was sent in error on Tuesday morning (Correction Dated Feb. 4, 2014).

Schaumburg Police Department was conducting a routine test of its emergency notification system for schools. According to Schaumburg police, an unfortunate error occurred which resulted in a message being sent stating there was an emergency situation in the community that required schools initiate a lock-down. In a short period of time, and as soon as it was known that the wrong message was sent, the police department initiated contact with local schools to advise them that there was no emergency and they could resume normal school operations.

Instead of receiving information that the alert was a test message, Schaumburg’s School District 54 administrators received a phone alert of a real emergency involving an “Unidentified Emergency Situation.” Administrators contacted all 27 schools. The alert reached all schools in Schaumburg, including private schools and the Palatine-based Township High School District 211, which has schools in Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates.

Police immediately corrected the error with a notification to key school personnel. Nothing bad happened, except perhaps a few skipped heart beats. The false alarm raised awareness of key personnel to be prepared for emergencies that require a lockdown. More importantly, the incident causes a raised eyebrow about the limitations, safety and effectiveness of a narrow, centrally administered notification system. In other words, how safe is our society when all information comes from one centralized source. And what if that one centralized source makes an error in a real situation.

According to Community Relations Sgt. John Nebel of the Schaumburg Police Department, officers were using the “Everbridge Notification System” provided by Northwest Central Dispatch System. The error was 100 percent on Schaumburg police, according to Sgt. John Nebel. He added that Northwest Central Dispatch System (NWCDS) was not aware that the test was underway.

It is commendable that Schaumburg Police Department immediately revealed the error and informed the public. Mistakes can be made, and certainly most people have confidence that the Schaumburg Police Department will add safeguards to their testing operations to make sure this type of incident would not occur again. One common sense procedure would be to notify Northwest Central Dispatch whenever this type of a test is planned, as the performance of the dispatch center could have been negatively affected if citizens in mass started calling 9-1-1 inquiring about the lockdown with NWCDS not even knowing there was a lockdown or a test happening.

The Everbridge Notification System, sometimes known as “Reverse 911” is also used by Arlington Heights Police Department. Most recently it was used to notify residents of an “offender at large” near the Northpoint Shopping Center area, temporary suspension of garbage collection in severe weather, and an incident involving a shooting of an Arlington Heights police officer and a subsequent hostage situation.

Many citizens criticize the vague or incomplete information regarding the alerts. The way some police departments manage their emergencies leads many to wonder, “What is worse? … Alerts that offer vague, limited, non-specific information; or comprehensive alerts that offer the best information available at the time?

In the name of Homeland Security, many police departments have left the media out of the real-time equation, but is this really the most secure way to operate?

The greatness of the United States is built partly on a principal of checks and balances. When police hold all the cards of information, especially in a dangerous situation or during a major emergency, there is the possibility of more harm, especially if they make a mistake at the top, or if necessary information does not flow to the right people. While it might be enticing to think that the police can keep us safe by receiving all information and deciding what is appropriate for citizens to know, this is not realistic in a major emergency, such as a tornado disaster, major aircraft crash, or major terrorist act. The police and firefighters will simply be overloaded. Information will suffer — perhaps to the point where more lives than necessary will be lost. The current trend for some police agencies is definitely not in characteristic of a healthy, functioning democracy. It looks more like a police state.

ARLINGTON CARDINAL NEW FEATURE See several Twitter feeds in one quick look: Arlington Heights, Arlington Heights Police, Mount Prospect, Mount Prospect Police, Metra UP NW, Schaumburg, Schaumburg Police Nebl, Chicago Police, Notify Chicago, and Chicago Fire Department.

Across the United States police information services to the public vary widely. Some police agencies deliberately keep their police radio communications open to the public and use Twitter accounts for detailed updates to almost all incidents in their communities. Some cities provide live online accounts of the important data fields of their Computer Aided Dispatch systems, which list incidents as they occur (or with a slight delay).

Most police departments in the northwest suburbs use military-grade secret police radios that prevent the media and citizens from being aware of real-time information regarding incidents involving the police. The practice of using secret police radios not only might place citizens at risk in major emergencies, but the lack of awareness raises inconveniences to people in traffic situations, for example, and negatively affects the local economy by causing unnecessary fear, over-reaction, under-reaction, and possibly overly-prolonged reaction due to lack of information.

Compounding the issue of secret police radio channels, police agencies in the northwest suburbs have limited and/or inconsistent use of their Twitter accounts or other notification ssytems in real-time. Arlington Heights Police Department does the best job on their Twitter account regarding criminal incidents, but their messages are not real time, and tweets merely repeat their Citizen Observer information — an email subscription crime notification service available to residents and businesses. The Village of Schaumburg Twitter account does the best job of informing citizens of real-time traffic incidents, road closures and other statuses in the village, but is weak on real-time police incidents information. Some police departments in the northwest suburbs don’t have any Twitter account or any other means to notify citizens with an online record of what is happening. Police agency energy is definitely tipped toward protecting public safety information like it is a trade secret, rather then exerting energy giving citizens accurate information on the state of their public safety in real-time.

For some village leaders and police leaders, public information is a low priority afterthought. Ultimately it is up to citizens and business leaders to pressure politicians and village leaders to consider the importance of public safety information more seriously before terrorists, mass shooters or other offenders learn to take advantage of the inhibited real-time information available to the public.

Cardinal Note: As of June 5, 2013 — up to and including the date of this article — police incidents related to the above police agency are not reported in real time or within a prompt time period. Police protecting their realm of investigation and police activity, have chosen to use secret military-grade encrypted radios to withhold their police communications, which were previously open to the public and news media via monitoring of public safety scanning radios — with no known negative results locally.

The delayed knowledge or entirely blacked out knowledge resulting from encrypted police communications may protect certain police operations and investigations, but it also puts the public at risk in situations such as when armed and dangerous offenders are at large and when other similar situations occur, such as when desperate offenders of property crimes are eluding police. In other cases, the delayed or blacked out information inhibits or prohibits the possibility of the public providing early witness accounts before a criminal trail goes cold. Citizens are much more likely to recognize or recall suspicious or criminal activity if they are aware of the criminal incident within minutes or hours of its occurrence. The most serious incident involving dire results would be a trail that is allowed to go cold in the case of child abduction.

The lack of real time information from public police dispatch also weakens an effective neighborhood watch program mostly working to prevent property loss, but also working to prevent possible violent crimes.

Police have alternate ways to transmit tactical, operational or investigative information, while still keeping their main public dispatch channels open for the best balance of public safety and police safety.

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reverse 911, Everbridge Notification System, police, police radio encryption, police public information, public information officer

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