Less than two weeks into the beginning of the fall semester, UNC-Chapel Hill went into a school-wide shutdown due to an active shooter event that resulted in the death of one faculty member. For hours, over 30,000 students had no idea who and—most scarily—where the shooter was.
Students and faculty were left in the dark (figuratively and literally) as UNC’s alert system failed to update on the situation in real time. Instead, students had to scramble for information from social media to make some sense of the chaos. UNC’s student-run newspaper The Daily Tar Heel ran a cover page the next day that featured text messages sent from students and their families about the uncertainty of the situation, including “it’s scary how unprepared our teachers and staff were for that” and “I haven’t heard anything yet.”
In moments of mass confusion and fear, it’s difficult to hone in on situational awareness and intuition on where and how to avoid and defuse the danger, especially without the proper alert system. Thankfully, a startup based in Carthage (about an hour southwest of the Triangle) has a solution.
Active Defender is a mobile and web application that is designed for school faculty, staff, administrators and local law enforcement to easily report and isolate a dangerous situation, all while providing real-time updates from all areas within the school’s campus. The startup was recently chosen as one of NC TECH’s statewide “10 Startups to Watch” for 2023.
According to Founder and CEO Jim Boyte, studies have shown that when an alarm sounds, more than 90% of students and staff are unsure where the specific threat is located and some 17% find themselves in insecure locations, such as in bathrooms, hallways or parking lots.
With Active Defender’s app, staff can update each other, other administrators and local law enforcement on location updates, number of students accounted for, threat severity and more—all in real time.
“How is it that we’ve gone 50 years and teachers still don’t know if they’re going towards or away from danger?” Boyte said. “[Active Defender] gives staff members the ability to have a live dynamic map and quickly identify the problem, so that instead of freezing up, they’ll be able to make a good and quick decision.”
Founded in 2018, Active Defender was created and designed by experts with experience in both education and the military. In the military, situational awareness is a key concept that is drilled in training. It is also a crucial aspect in Active Defender’s design and functionality.
How the app works is that once a teacher and/or staff member logs into the app, it will display multiple potential crisis icons, ranging from a fire in the science lab to an active shooter situation in the cafeteria. These icons can be placed in different rooms of the campus, similar to geo-tagging, depending on where the incident is.
The app also displays an interactive map of the school’s campus and can accommodate multi-level floor plans, which allows staff to quickly and accurately report the location of a crisis. During a crisis, anyone can report and update their current status using a slider, where users can slide their status to “green” which means they’re O.K. or to “red” which means they need help. This feature allows for local law enforcement to isolate higher-priority situations and get to them first. Users can also communicate with the rest of the school using the chat feature when further communication is needed.
Once a crisis is reported, Active Defender can instantly alert local police, thereby reducing response time. The app also has an event-triggered camera feature that staff can use to help administrators and first responders understand and isolate a crisis quickly.
Having access to an app like Active Defender can create more comfort for teachers and staff, knowing that this system can account for virtually any dangerous situation. But like with any alarm, it can be stressful and almost scary to trigger it. Think of having to pull a fire alarm for a whole building.
That’s why Active Defender provides a live demo for schools interested in using the program. They will provide on-duty training to teach administrators and faculty not only how to use the app but also to reduce the stress associated with triggering the alarm. Boyte emphasized the ease and user-friendliness of the app, which offers quick updates in an all-in-one main page.
“The underpinning of who we are, part of our culture as a company, is that we want 100% of staff members at that campus or institution to be confident and comfortable that they can communicate in the midst of an emergency,” Boyte said.
Active Defender is currently active in several schools and community colleges in North Carolina. Their SaaS-based pricing plans are tailored to specific school needs, ranging from K-12 to university campuses, and includes an initial campus setup and training.
The plans would be sold to each campus, rather than individual teachers/staff users, to ensure comfort for every person knowing that this app can provide a state-of-the-art emergency communication system and support for any and all dangers, Boyte said.
“These teachers, they’re the heroes,” Boyte said. “They’re showing up every day in the midst of this world that mentally is just not the same as when [we were] in 6th or 7th grade. They’re here to protect and we want to make sure they have the capabilities to do so.”