Helix Group showed off its last three months of work in three seconds at Rainier Middle School last month.

The Tumwater-based web and application design company led a live demo of its School Active Lockdown and Emergency Response Technology (School ALERT) on August 22 for local education, government and law enforcement officials, a number of whom helped the firm create the system.

“It was amazing that it only took two or three minutes to clear that building,” said Heather Weissinger, business coordinator at Helix Group. “The actual lockdown itself took less than three seconds.”

The new software, which resides in an application that can be installed on smartphones, tablets and computers within schools, works with the school’s existing hardware to lockdown the buildings and contact police in the case of an emergency.

The software enables teachers and school administrators to communicate more efficiently with emergency responders. “And also communicate period,” Weissinger, said.

The system works with electronic door locks and surveillance cameras, allows school staff to check in with their location and student head counts when safe, and allows administrators and law enforcement to provide instruction to staff during a lockdown.

At the event at Rainier Middle School, Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, initiated the lockdown with a press of a button on an Android tablet. Teachers and other participants were able to communicate with each other by entering messages through authorized and configured tablets at the school. 

Creating the technology was a considerable investment for Helix Group, which has an employee base of just seven or eight people, said executive director TJ Kowalski.

He said the concept, which emerged from conversations with Rainier School District Superintendent Tim Garchow, is simple, but it hasn’t been an easy application to build.

“This has tied up about three people for about a good three and a half months,” Kowalski said. “It has proven to be a rather costly adventure for us as a small company.”

But, given the unique- and timeliness of the product, Kowalski expects a notable return on his investment.

Earlier this year, Senate Bill 5197, which requires all districts in the state to work with local law enforcement to develop emergency systems that will accelerate response times, unanimously passed. Districts have until December 2014 to check in with an updated plan.

School ALERT is one option for school districts, but it’s not their only option, said Dammeier, who co-sponsored the bill after last year’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“There are 295 schools districts. We can’t pretend to know the best answer from Olympia,” said Dammeier. “We want to force everyone to meet with local law enforcement agencies and think of the best way to do it in light of Sandy Hook.”

All three schools in the Rainier School District will have the School ALERT system installed after the first consumer version is released this month, said Garchow.

Bethel School District, on the other hand, has come up with another plan, said Dammeier. Starting this year, the district will lock schools doors after kids arrive, so guests will have to be buzzed in.

The capital budget set aside $10 million to help schools implement these improvements, he said. The intent is for half of that money to be used for enhanced communication with law enforcement and the remaining $5 million to be used for other school safety and security enhancements.

As of now, though, Helix Group’s product is the only one of its kind.

“It’s a unique product to the state, to the region,” said Kowalski. “We’ve actually had customers call us from Florida.”

The initial set-up and a one-year subscription will cost schools less than $3,000. There will be an annual subscription fee, which has yet to be determined, but will be significantly less than the startup costs, Kowalski said.