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New sensor system detects gunshots, can automatically lock down a school

An electrical engineer in Richland, Washington’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has designed a system that can help keep schools safe from gun violence. Jim Skorpik, who has previously developed sensors meant to detect a missile’s readiness for combat, has now applied his expertise to keeping children safe. His sensor technology has now been licensed by EAGL Technology out of Albuquerque, which has installed and tested the new sensors at Hermosa Elementary School in Artesia, New Mexico.

When paired with a security system, Skorpik’s sensor is able to alert authorities, turn a camera to the scene where shots were heard, set off the alarm, and lock doors. Although the gunshot detectors themselves are about the size of a pack of gum, their diminutive size does not detract from their potentially life-saving abilities.

As Scott Simer, the facilities manager for the Artesia school district, told NPR, the wireless, battery-powered sensors are capable of differentiating between gunshots and other loud noises — say, a dropped textbook or even a firecracker. And this isn’t just theoretical — Simer has put the sensors to the test. “We set off some M-80 firecrackers in the school,” he said. “[The sensors] didn’t pick ’em up.”

“It’s sad that we’re in a society where we have to have stuff like this,” he added. “And that we are testing stuff like this in a school. But the reality is, it happens.”

It’s been a reality for Skorpik for the last few years. The technologist was inspired to create the sensors after three of his grandchildren experienced a gun lockdown of their own. “The youngest one, she was like in kindergarten, and she came home pretty emotional,” Skorpik told NPR. “She was in the gym and the teacher was covering the kids with gym mats.”

But hopefully, with this new technology, Skorpik can help alleviate some of these fears. The good thing about the system is that it is fully automatic. There’s no need for human intervention in order to activate the alarms or send the school into lockdown. That means that teachers and other personnel can focus on moving kids to safe areas, rather than trying to call 911 and attempting to secure their rooms and the building. And because the sensors are small, they don’t draw unnecessary attention from children.

EAGL says that it has seen an increase in inquiries about the system since February’s Parkland tragedy, and as for Artesia Public Schools, the district has plans to add the detectors in six more schools before classes begin in the fall of 2018.

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