Following False Alarms Watertown Schools to Hold Emergency Drills, Also Seek to Improve Communication System

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After a series of false alarms in the security systems at Watertown’s new schools, the district plans to hold drills for the students, and will look for ways to avoid more incidents in the future.

The Watertown Public Schools opened two brand new elementary schools, a third underwent a major renovation and expansion, and students at the high school have a new, temporary home. The new buildings also have new technology, including a multi-hazard notification system, said Superintendent Dede Galdston.

All four new schools have had false alarms, she said, some due to wiring and other when the panic button was pressed by mistake.

“We want to make sure people understand that these happen and that we will do to prevent that from happening again,” Galdston said. “I can’t promise that they will never happen again but what we can do to help mitigate them from happening again. These are very sophisticated systems. We are very happy that we have them, but with that comes some learning curves.”

Later she added: “More importantly, I do want to acknowledge the fact that it is very traumatic when you have a situation where you have a panic button pressed, you enter a situation where you do not know what’s happening,” Galdston said. “I know that it has been very hard on children, hard on staff, which is why we are doing everything we can to prevent this from happening again. I am sincerely sorry that that happened and that is what we don’t want to happen again and I do believe that is the direction we are heading.”

When activated, the system takes action depending on the situation, including sounding alarms and locking doors in the school. Scenarios include shelter-in-place when there is a medical emergency to allow first responders to move around, lockdowns if there is a hazardous situation outside the school, and evacuations to get students and staff out of the school.

While teachers and staff have had training for emergency situations, called ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate), the students haven’t had drill for several years, Galdston said.

“Prior to COVID we would do them every year, with varying degrees of success at the elementary schools. Sometimes it is too frightening for children,” she said. “It can be a little more anxiety than we wanted it to be, so we haven’t done an ALICE drill at elementary schools the last few years.”

A drill had been planned at all three elementary schools on Feb. 13, 2024, Galdston said.

“We are actually going to do a talk through and explain what is happening, explain where you might hide, where you might go, this is what you will hear,” Galdston said. “Teachers have had training. They know what they are responsible for, but we want the kids to at least have the awareness so they know what they might hear.” 

Watertown Middle School has already conducted a drill, and one is planned at the high school during the next couple weeks, said WHS Principal Joel Giacobozzi.

Galdston said that parents would be contacted with information about the drills prior to them taking place.

Both Hosmer and Cunniff had false alarms due to pressing the panic button by accident.

“We are working to determine the best place to locate the panic button,” Galdston said. “The Cunniff one may be too close. We want to make sure that people don’t touch them.”

Another discovery about the new buildings is that there are areas in the middle of the schools where the staff walkie talkies down work. The district is looking for ways to boost the signals so there are no areas with bad signals.

Communication with Families

Related to the emergency situations, Galdston said the Watertown Public Schools seeks to improve communication with parents.

“We need to be able to communicate quickly with families,” she said. “Right now we do robocalls, we do the emails, which I am here to tell you as an administrator it takes a little bit of time to put together (and) making sure we are sending out the right message to the right group.”

The district will move to a system that has texting capability, and an app that parents can download that will send push messages to their cellphones.

Another feature school administrators want to have is to have the messages translated into the many languages spoken by families in Watertown.

“If I were to send out a text to the community they would receive those messages in their language,” Galdston said.

The texting capability and the app will be part of the district’s effort to improve the Watertown Public Schools website. She said the changes to the website might not occur until next school year, but she wants to get the texting features added in the near future.

The search has been narrowed to the products of two companies: Apptegy and ParentSquare. The systems are being examined by a team of stakeholders: teachers, administrators, content curators, parents, a School Committee member, and coordinators.

Galdston said she expects to make the decision by the end of January or early February.

2 thoughts on “Following False Alarms Watertown Schools to Hold Emergency Drills, Also Seek to Improve Communication System

    • Hi Matthew,
      As a retired teacher who was present in a Boston Public School on 911, in the shadow of the Pru, with no protocols in place for such a horrendous happening, I can tell you that these protocols are unfortunate but necessary.

      As parents streamed into the school, crying, grabbing their children into their arms and rushing them out of the building, I was the one at the end of the school day who had to escort the kids left behind, because their parents couldn’t leave work, and try to reassure these kids that something bad had happened (I wasn’t going to lie to them), but they’d be safe on the bus going home. I reassured them that their parents would explain it all to them when they got home.

      I’m glad to see that Watertown school administrators are taking steps to acknowledge the upset these drills can make for small children and are working on ways to ameliorate that.

      I’m totally frustrated that our new schools have these sorts of “glitches” though.

      As for counting on statistics when it comes your child’s safety (think Sandy Hook). No one wants to play the odds with their children…no one!

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