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Could Radio/Cell Phones Issues Affect School Safety?

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EFFINGHAM COUNTY, GA -

Cell phones are now things we take for granted.
 
Always in our hands and at the ready.

But what happens if you don't have your phone, or if there's no signal?

What happens when there is an emergency?

It's a question some Effingham County leaders are now facing.

"911, what's your emergency?"
"We just had a shooting at our school. We have to get out of here."

That was February, 2012.  A frightening 911 call just moments after a gunman opens fire inside Chardon High school in Ohio.  

3 students are killed, 3 more injured.  

Dispatchers get minute by minute updates on what happens, all through a cell phone.

But what would have happened if that person had no bars?

With no calls, would more students have died?

"You rehearse stuff in your mind all the time. What if this happens, what if that happens?" said Effingham County Deputy Bruce Battle.

Effingham County Deputy Bruce Battle has spent 7 years inside Effingham County High School, protecting kids and keeping the peace. And he's been doing it all sometimes without the best communication.

"If it's in an area which is blocked in, some officers are like a hole in the wall," said Battle. "Technically you aren't getting out on anything."

In several Effingham County Schools, cell phones just don't work, and sheriff's radios can also end up in the dark.

"Anytime you get into some of these brick, metal buildings, we have issues with it," explained Effingham County Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie.

Issues that Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie says he's been concerned about since he got into office.

"It would make it so much easier and cut down so much on one of the stress factors we have if something did happen at our schools," said the Sheriff.

McDuffie would like to see BDA's or Bi-Directional Amplifier's put at each school to expand to signal and give radios and his school resource officers a boost.

But those cost $1,000 or more. Multiply that by a dozens schools and budgets become an issue.

"It's a cost factor, and until that day comes, we will work around it like we always have," said McDuffie.

"If it's a priority, which it would be a priority of keeping our kids safe, I would think we would find the money if that's what's needed," explained Randy Shearhouse, Effingham County School Superintendent.

Effingham Schools Superintendent Randy Shearhouse has his staff tuned in to the communication issues, and he wants to make sure parents know the whole truth.

"When you hear there is no communication you wonder well, what's going to happen?" said Shearhouse. "There are ways to communicate. We have at least 3 ways to schools as ways to get out."

"If I change channels I can get the middle school next door, or the bus yard or buses on the route," pointed out Battle.

With a sheriff's radio, school radio and cell phone on his hip, deputy battle always feels connected to the schools, and emergency services.

"Does it limit what you can do?" I asked the Deputy.
"No. I don't see where it does," said Battle. "Somebody will get the word, even if I have to tell them to run."

Effingham County High School Principal Yancy Ford's phone is another direct link to parents and safety officials.

A text message can hit hundreds of numbers in seconds.

"My emergency number on the portal," Ford shows us. "That message will go out to everybody."

A message that the Sheriff wants all parents to know.

"You are prepared in case something happens?"
"We are prepared."
"The communication issue is not an issue?"
"We will deal with it and will get by."

Even if communication is an issue, Effingham County Sheriff's aren't walking into any potentially dangerous school situation blind.  

For the last decade, The department has held an active shooter exercise every summer.

Its designed to give deputies a hands on lesson in how to handle a crisis in any large building, not just schools.

Effingham County Administrator David Crawley told News 3 he didn't know there was an issue with cell phone service in schools.

But he said improvements they already improvements planned for the law enforcement radio system.

That could cost as much as $2 million to bring the system up to date and end county dead zones.

The County may have to add another tower in the future, which would cost another $1 million dollars.

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