El Paso school district relies on interoperability

Published 11 September 2007

El Paso school district wants to avoid the problems highlighted in Columbine: It uses Department of Justice funds to buy radios which will allow school police officers to talk to El Paso city police and firefighters instantly

One of the frustrating aspects of the 20 April 1999 Columbine tragedy was the sheer amount of time it took the police to secure the building. Two things prevented quicker action: The high school’s building was not only large, but its modern design contained many angled corridors, rooms leading to other rooms, and other features which forced the police to go very slowly; the second aspect was that the police had no blue prints of the school, making it even more difficult to know where all the building exits were, where broom closets were located in which the attackers might be hiding, and more. The El Paso, Texas, Independent School District (EPISD) wants to prepare for any eventuality, so it can now communicate with the El Paso Fire Department and El Paso Police Department without using land lines, cell phones, and dispatchers. In a move that officials said will improve response times to accidents at schools, EPISD police are now carrying radios that — with the flip of a switch — can tap into the frequency used by the city’s emergency respondents. “The general public assumes that during an event, the El Paso Police Department and the (El Paso) Sheriff’s Department can talk to each other,” said Victor Araiza, the chief of EPISD police. “But the reality is that they’re all on different frequencies and communication must go through dispatchers and can take a while.”

Now, with the collaboration of the city, the district used grants from the local 911 district and U.S. Department of Justice to buy forty radios which will allow school police officers to talk to El Paso city police and firefighters instantly. The $3,000 radios, which are already in use, could let school and city police coordinate efforts during an emergency at a school. “When you are dealing with a life-or-death situation, seconds count,” Araiza said. Araiza said at times, both school and city police have responded to the same call at a school, but because their communications were not compatible, they didn’t know the other agency was there. Officials said these radios can coordinate frequencies with other law enforcement agencies in El Paso County. Talks are examining expanding the collaboration to agencies in Southern New Mexico.