January 16, 2019

Case Study: Fulton County Schools

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Fulton County Schools (FCS) is one of the oldest and largest school districts in Georgia, USA, with nearly 96,000 students and approximately 14,000 full and part-time employees working across 106 schools, administrative and support buildings. It’s safe to say their Emergency Operations Center has many moving parts, and in today’s fast-paced news environment, school leadership, faculty, and parents expect to be informed the second they catch wind of a security concern – big or small.

This responsibility falls to the Emergency Operations Center, tasked with ensuring the overall safety of the school system and keeping all stakeholders informed the moment an incident occurs. Like most Security Operations Centers (SOCs), Fulton County Schools’ EOC is equipped with monitors that show all camera feeds, screens alerting to forced entry, and other alarms to notify the security teams of potential disruptions. Even with state-of-the-art physical security hardware, knowing what is happening outside your grounds and facilities is extremely challenging. To compound this difficulty, monitoring for unexpected events is a near-impossible task. For example, what happens when a major incident, requiring a heavy police presence, takes place in the neighbourhood next to one of your schools? What if there are reports of a weapon? Or worse, what if there is an active situation that puts students and staff in harm’s way? These extremely high impact events are particularly hard to monitor or prevent – they rarely have brand mentions or obvious keywords that are easily searched.

This is why Fulton County Schools turned to SAM. SAM uses AI to detect crisis events within minutes of occurrence from on-the-ground social media sources. This helps FCS stay ahead of events that might impact operations and customer experience before they hit the news. We spoke with Paul Hildreth, the district’s Emergency Operations Coordinator, about how they use SAM.

Q: How is SAM deployed at FCS?

We utilize SAM in our Emergency Operations Center to provide us with a situational awareness advantage with social media. Further, we use alerts generated in the Fulton County area to notify us of events that many impact our area of operations. For example, if we are notified of a traffic accident on a major highway, we could notify our Transportation Department for potential school bus routing changes. Social media monitoring also alerts us when messages are posted regarding specific keywords around potential active shooter or lockdown situations. We have found that students are very quick to post information on social media that would be picked up by SAM and then shared as an alert with us. Between the live monitoring and alert monitoring, SAM provides us with 24/7 alerts for our district, county, state and country.

If we see a crisis-related event, such as a lockdown, traffic accident, or shooting – especially when it is in our county – we react quickly to make an assessment of the situation and whether it will have an impact on our district. Further, we monitor and react to national events of the same nature, as they also have an influence on our operations. Sometimes when something happens in another city, some people will take images or information and use that information to make it appear that something has happened locally. Having the knowledge of these events prevents false positives.

Q: What sort of information (or aspects) of a SAM alert are the most important to FCS operations?

We like the user interface of SAM. It is concise and provides enough information in the short description to allow us to decide if a course of action is necessary. The graphical map is also visually helpful as it shows areas of interest based on reports. We tried many approaches such as TweetDeck, but most of that information is just clutter and loud talk – it’s hard to follow and interpret. It was just not effective enough for our purposes.

The most recent major events we reacted to were the school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe. SAM alerted us to a lockdown and shooting incident at these schools. This allowed me to notify our district leadership of the event before it was on the TV news. Knowing this helped us to dispel rumors and provide actual live updates to leadership as the events were unfolding. While this was not in our community, we also must be aware of events and how they may impact our district. These events had a huge public-based response to school safety initiatives and we quickly realized that the sooner we got accurate information, the sooner we could respond and react in our own district.

We had an alert of a shooting in the Fulton County area and were immediately able to see social media posts in SAM, identify the situation in regards to its proximity to our schools, and then make the call whether to lock down the school based on threat potential.

Q: How did FCS monitor these situations before SAM?

We were more reactive in our monitoring, in that we only reacted to social media once someone else identified an issue and then we started to investigate. Now we typically get the information much earlier and can react in a much better capacity without needing to know specific keywords or without the need to create a manual geo-fence. We want to know what is going on as soon as possible without all the noise that typically comes from manually monitoring social media.

Q: What does it mean to your operations when you’re able to inform school leadership of critical events before it hits the news?

This shows our district’s proactive efforts regarding safety and security. We always want to be on the leading edge of providing information to our executive leadership. SAM allows us to have the most up-to-date information at our fingertips. Plus, seeing the information in SAM allows us to also check the temperature of those posting messages, such as if they are in a panic or otherwise reactive to what is happening. This allows us to better determine our potential response to situations.

I believe our parents and staff expect our focus on safety and security will foster an environment where learning can be maximized. Students who feel safe are better learners. SAM is a great resource in our toolbelt so we can provide students and staff with an environment that focuses on teaching and learning.

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