Texas A&M University-San Antonio says it has become the first university in the world to install a campus-wide technology that can pinpoint a person’s location indoors during medical emergencies or active-shooter situations.

The South San Antonio university announced in December that it integrated the technology, powered by wireless safety beacons throughout the six campus buildings, its portable structures, and dormitory, with a free mobile app that connects students, faculty, and staff to the University Police Department.

A professor having a heart attack on the second floor of the Central Academic Building, for example, could tap the app’s “emergency” button and alert campus police to his location within a few feet. Police officers receive the alert within a layered Google Maps-like interface that shows each floor of the building. From there, the professor could also have two-way interactions, such as texting, with the police officers to let them know the nature of the emergency.

Because police previously received GPS coordinates only, the professor’s location would have been anyone’s guess. But campus police anticipate that with the help of the safety beacons, they can improve response times.

Assistant Police Chief Roger Stearns said A&M-San Antonio’s adoption of the technology can provide a blueprint for campuses throughout the nation. Anyone with an Android or Apple mobile device can download the SafeZone app to request help not only to notify campus police of an emergency but also to seek assistance finding their classroom, for example, and ask for first aid to be rendered in a non-emergency situation.

Stearns said he has worked as a law enforcement officer at other universities but none with a better capacity to locate incidents than what the A&M system school now has.

“The challenge for campus safety apps has always been that you get GPS coordinate information,” Stearns said, explaining that information can only indicate in what building an incident has occurred and not what floor. “We’re communities with multi-level buildings all over campus. This is an issue for us nationwide.”

Assistant Police Chief Roger Stearns.
Texas A&M University-San Antonio Assistant Police Chief Roger Stearns. Credit: JJ Velasquez / San Antonio Report

The indoor positioning technology is the evolution of the blue-light emergency phones seen on most campuses today, Stearns said.

Using Bluetooth Low Energy, the hockey-puck-sized safety beacons can transmit location information wirelessly over short distances and are easy to maintain – their batteries only need to be replaced every five years. In all, the university spent $70,000 installing the technology throughout the campus. The blue-light call boxes, meanwhile, cost thousands of dollars each and hundreds of dollars in annual upkeep.

“What this does is it allows you to put the emergency phone with the student, with the faculty, with the staff, with the campus visitor,” he said. “When you’re in multi-level structures by having these safety beacons installed you’re able to pinpoint within a matter of feet where someone is in the building.”

A screenshot of the SafeZone app.
A screenshot of the SafeZone app. Credit: Courtesy / SafeZone

When someone activates an alert on the SafeZone app, campus police receives his or her location in real time. The person in need of help can then utilize the app’s two-way texting function to communicate with police officers.

Just over 10 percent of the university’s student body has installed the app, Stearns said, so emergency call boxes, using one’s phone to call 911 or the campus police emergency line, and disseminating information via text and email alerts will remain necessary aspects of the university’s emergency response system.

So far, the system has been used mostly to respond to medical emergencies, but the more the A&M-San Antonio embraces the app and its precise location ability, the faster campus police can respond to the most dire circumstances, such as an active shooter scenario, Stearns said.

The university’s emergency operations center and university police can access a central dashboard that displays real-time locations of on-patrol officers and volunteers in addition to the location of on-campus incidents. It provides the police department with not only a framework for responding more tactically to incidents but also metrics that inform its patrol coverage, Stearns said.

Such analytics include heat maps showing where the campus’s 14 officers, including Police Chief Ron Davidson, are spending time on patrol.

“The supervisors are then able to pull that information and communicate that to control shifts,” Stearns said, adding that shift supervisors could theoretically, in the middle of a shift, change the patrol officers planned coverage based on the information from the heat maps. “That’s a tremendous resource for us.”

The campus police force can also play back incidents, or show the route and time it took for an officer or officers to respond to a call, “to optimize performance,” Davidson said in a news release.

The wireless safety beacons are now a standard piece of equipment for A&M-San Antonio facilities and will be deployed at any future constructions on the 696-acre campus that opened in August 2009.

The university is also exploring the possibility of using the technology to help students get around on campus, much like Google Maps, but navigating to the exact room. Faculty in the recently built Science and Technology Building may also use the beacons for academic research.

Stearns said the police department gets the occasional false alarm, but he doesn’t mind. It’s all part of creating a safer campus environment, he said.

“We would rather respond to someone who’s just using the app and created a false alarm – it’s great, now they know how it works – than for them not to have it and be in an incident that we need to respond to,” he said. “We would always rather be called for something that turns out to be nothing than to let an actual emergency go unanswered.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.