A wall of digitized screens show surveillance camera footage of Utica High School during a Feb. 20 demonstration at the Macomb County Department of Roads and COMTEC Thomas S. Welsh Building in Mount Clemens. The purpose was to show how law enforcement can gain access to the school camera feeds to save lives in an active shooter event.

A wall of digitized screens show surveillance camera footage of Utica High School during a Feb. 20 demonstration at the Macomb County Department of Roads and COMTEC Thomas S. Welsh Building in Mount Clemens. The purpose was to show how law enforcement can gain access to the school camera feeds to save lives in an active shooter event.

Photo by Eric Czarnik


County’s school emergency response tech unveiled

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published February 26, 2018

MOUNT CLEMENS — Macomb County officials proved that they have the power to keep an eye on anyone who may intend to harm students at schools that are equipped with surveillance cameras.

During a Feb. 20 press conference, county and school officials described a partnership through which county law enforcement officials can access school security camera feeds.

The press conference, held at the Macomb County Department of Roads and COMTEC Thomas S. Welsh Building in Mount Clemens, demonstrated how a command room equipped with monitors and screens could save lives in crisis situations, such as an active shooter in the schools.

The conference came less than a week after a school shooter killed 17 people at a Parkland, Florida, high school. Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said local police are working with school superintendents to see if there are additional ways to improve student safety. 

“What’s happening today is a concern for many of us: I think those that are working in the schools, obviously law enforcement, those that are responsible as government personnel, and more important, parents,” Hackel said.

Hackel said the COMTEC center was built in 2013 and holds communications technology for multipurpose uses, ranging from road activity and traffic signals to emergency management. Inside the center, a prominent wall contains 54 digitized monitors on a 20-by-50-foot screen that can simultaneously monitor all sorts of video feeds or combine them into one giant image.

Hackel said that Macomb’s setup is unique, and added that its capabilities are “mind boggling.” 

“What we have, I think, is further advanced than anywhere else,” he said.

“This COMTEC center, I can tell you that I don’t know anywhere else in North America that you have the capability and the technology that we have and the infrastructure that we have in place. And that video wall, nobody can lay claim to that.”

Hackel explained that there was a time when schools didn’t have security cameras, but they are becoming more widespread, and the county has the capability to tap into those cameras should an emergency response to a threat be needed.

While law enforcement has long been prepared to respond to shooting incidents, the aggregated camera feeds will give law enforcement command officers quick access to maps and building schematics. It will also allow commanders to see what’s happening inside and outside schools in real time, thus making it easier to help officers maneuver their way through rooms and hallways.

“It gives us an incredible advantage,” Hackel said. “So if there was somebody hiding in the multipurpose room or somebody hiding in a bathroom or someplace in one of the schools, we’re able to see that live.

“So now when the officers are responding to the SWAT team, my gosh; you have one of their commanders here talking to their officers live as they’re going through that school, telling them, ‘Hey, there are kids that are hunkered down in one of the rooms. You know what, there’s a door that leads to outside. Maybe somebody can breach that door and get those kids to safety.’”

Hackel added that the police are only given the camera feeds when they need it in an emergency, and police would not have access afterward.

“There’s always this concern about Big Brother,” he said. “It’s not like we’re sitting there with these 50 monitors watching kids eat in a lunchroom or play kickball out in the playgrounds. That’s not what we’re doing here.”

Hackel said that almost all of the county’s school districts have some type of camera system. He said all of the school districts are aware of the county’s COMTEC setup, and school districts like Chippewa Valley and Fraser have expressed interest in testing out the system, as have some
private schools and even companies.

Utica Community Schools Superintendent Christine Johns said that of UCS’s schools, only the four comprehensive high schools — Henry Ford II, Utica, Stevenson and Eisenhower — have an elaborate camera system like the one tested at the demonstration.

In the junior high and elementary schools, exterior doors are locked, and secured entryways have camera surveillance, she said. The district works along with the county executive, local law enforcement and the intermediate school district on safety procedures, adding that her district reviews its safety protocols periodically. She said school districts are working together in a collaborative effort.

Johns explained that four retired police officers assist the school district with security plans, and staff is trained on how to handle crisis events. The student body and community also play a role in keeping the schools safe, she added.

“It’s also those relationships adults have with students each and every day,” Johns said. “Some of our best tips come from our kids; they come from our families.” 

In addition, Hackel touted the importance of situational awareness in preventing school violence, and he asked the public to inform law enforcement personnel if someone or something appears to be out of place, even if it’s a Facebook or Twitter post.

He asked the media to follow through on reporting what happens to young people who are caught scribbling threats on a wall or making fake threats via phone, letters or social media posts — all of which wastes law enforcement’s time. 

The idea, he said, is for publicity to make parents aware that causing disturbances is not a harmless prank.

“Maybe draw some media attention to what happens to those people if and when they are found,” Hackel said. “More times than not, we do discover who those people are. And I know we have a prosecutor here, Eric Smith, who doesn’t take that lightly. He will actually charge those kids.”

After the presentation, Sterling Heights Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski said it’s unfortunate that such precautions are the “new reality,” but he praised the technology and said he hopes more schools will get on board.

“Having this capability is another level of protection for our officers,” he said.

“Knowing exactly where a gunman could be — they’re in the cafeteria, they’re moving towards the south end of the building — that live, real-time feed from our dispatchers is going to be lifesaving in protecting those kids and protecting our police officers.”

Learn more about Macomb County by visiting www.macombgov.org. Find out more about UCS by visiting www.uticak12.org or by calling (586) 797-1000.