What’s My Safety Priority – Radio Communications or Video Surveillance?

There’s a debate brewing in the school safety world as radio communications is pitted against video surveillance for a northern notch on the priority ladder.  Here’s my two cents on this discussion.

Let’s begin with an examination of the everyday use of radio communications and video surveillance.

Everyday Use – Radio Communications

  • Playground supervision.
  • Custodians (talk group).
  • Special education staff communicating with each other as students with special needs transition across the school.
  • Office staff being able to talk to administrators.
  • Sporting events.
  • Bus drop off / pick up at school.

Everyday Use – Video Surveillance

  • Observe internal/external areas of schools (but if this is to be done in real-time, then staff need to be assigned to monitor the cameras – and this allocation of personnel is uncommon in most schools that are already resource-strapped).
  • Observe entrances (can be coupled with a buzz-in system to allow people into the building).
  • Forensic (post incident investigation – this is the most common use of school surveillance systems – to be able to verify what happened at a certain location and specific time).
  • Potential crime/incident deterrent.

Emergency Use – Radio Communications

  • Radio is one voice going out to many people (however, 2-way radio is not a replacement for calling 911).
  • Potential to interface with law enforcement; responders (with digital radio systems).
  • Communications across buildings.  For example: at night, one custodian in a building could alert other custodians in other buildings of a safety issue.
  • Intra-school and proximal exterior communications if students evacuate offsite (you can still communicate with staff if students are taken a few blocks from school as digital systems typically have repeaters that saturate the area with the signal).
  • Same tool people use each day.  People are familiar with 2-way radios and will be able to operate them during an emergency situation.
  • Mobile.
  • Emergency channel scanned continuously (on digital systems – and the channel can also be scanned by the police).

Emergency Use – Video Surveillance

  • Potential for external viewing from cameras by law enforcement.  However, how realistic is it for the police to log into school cameras on route to school emergency?  Once police arrive, they will commence a rapid entry into the building to locate and neutralize the shooter(s) – police won’t be looking at a smart phone as they navigate the building
  • In intruder or active shooter situation, potential to access cameras track intruder/shooter – monitor police entrance, routes, inventory status of building

Other Crises

Severe Weather

The advantage goes to 2-way radios.  Buildings can rapidly communicate directives to go to shelter areas and dynamic information can be communicated across buildings in an instant to get everyone “on the same page”.

Intruder/Active Shooter

The advantage goes to 2-way radios.  Most active shooter situations conclude in just a few minutes.  Getting staff and students into secured areas will be key to saving lives.  In this scenario, seconds literally do matter.  It is true that technology now allows for police to remotely access school cameras.  Would this be helpful in a shooter situation?  Probably not.  Again, most active shooter situations will end within minutes.  The initial law enforcement responders are not going to be keying up the school’s cameras as they race to the scene.  Once on scene, don’t expect police to storm the building with a PDA in one hand with a camera feed and a rifle in the other hand.  For active shooter situations that are longer, or involve hostages, there would be benefit in being able to access the school’s cameras.


The advantage goes to 2-way radios.  Again, the benefit to rapid, intra and inter-location communications will quickly inform decisions to shelter in place or evacuate.

Bomb Threat

The advantage goes to 2-way radios.  Again, the benefit to rapid, intra and inter-location communications will quickly inform decisions to evacuate and will also alert potential evacuation sites, which might be other schools.  There could be a forensic benefit to video post threat, however.

Toxic Spills

The advantage goes to 2-way radios.  Again, the benefit to rapid, intra and inter-location communications will quickly inform decisions to shelter in place or evacuate.  An example could be buildings and grounds directing custodial staff to seal all air handlers.


I would prioritize 2-way radios above video surveillance.   The primary reasons for my position are as follows:

  1. Radios have broader day-to-day usage.
  2. Radios connect one person to many, instantly across locations – seconds count in a crisis response.
  3. 2-way radios are applicable in any crisis situation.

I caution schools on being “sold” on video surveillance as a preventative or in-the-moment school safety tool.  Surveillance in schools has been, and will continue to be, largely a forensic investigation tool with a secondary purpose of crime/incidence deterrence .  While face-recognition technology exists, for example, it will be years before this type of software is practical in the school environment.  Radio communications and video surveillance have their places at the table – you just have to figure out which chair you assign them.