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Smarter Security in Movie Theaters and Public Venues

First, I want to express both my own and my company’s genuine shock and sadness about the horrific attack in Aurora, Colorado during the early morning of July 20. The tragic violence of a mass shooting at a movie theater during the premiere of a big movie like The Dark Knight Rises has me, like so many others, trying to understand what happened. And because I work with emergency communication systems for a living, the issue of warning and potential prevention is foremost on my mind, as I try to grapple with what happened that night.

Perhaps the bigger picture of this horrible tragedy and the implications for theater security will become clear in the weeks and months to come; but at this moment, I can’t personally help to think how this could have been prevented or mitigated. We (not only as a business, but as a society) have the technology, the know-how, and the ability to at least mitigate these types of situation — and to do so simply, easily and inexpensively; so it absolutely confounds me that this shooting was able to run its course the way it did. It’s at least a good thing that the shooter’s gun jammed and hopefully prevented him from expanding his attack even further.

A major, yet simple component that comes to my mind is a simple door-open detector (either wired or easier-to-install wireless). These devices are even cheaper than the standalone emergency exit alarms that can be found in many retail outlets, and can integrate with other systems. We have installations that use these to monitor access to secure areas, already; so, I have no trouble envisioning a system in which an automatic door-open notice is sent to a Connections server, which can then automatically (and instantly) alert staff to a potential problem (at least to prevent theater hoppers from seeing free movies, I would think). What if someone in the box-office or some other staff had known that an exit door was suspiciously propped-open at the start of a movie? Wouldn’t they at least go shut it? I really cannot help but wonder if such a simple action, if in-place, may have helped mitigate or prevent this tragedy, altogether.

Also, most movie theaters use digital projectors, these days. What this suggests is that a warning message could conceivably be shown on the big screen, potentially just as easily as our Connections product can send video content to LCD screens. So, even if the shooting were allowed to begin in the first place, a system integrated into the digital projector could have at least instructed people in each of the individual theaters what to do (shelter in place or direct them to customized evacuation routes for each theater). On the other hand, perhaps a stand-alone dedicated device (like an LCD flat screen or LED sign board) might be better, in case patrons would confuse the message with the movie content. Either way, clear instructions are a “must.” According to witness accounts, the Aurora theater’s fire alarm system was activated very soon after the shootings began, prompting some to begin evacuating; but by some witnesses’ accounts, the assailant began to target people who were trying to evacuate. This is one example, if horrific, of why we need ways to communicate specific details and instructions (even if pre-defined), rather than simplistic notification alarms which have limited meaning.

As I said, perhaps a clearer picture will come out later, but it appears to me that if there were time to activate the fire alarm, there would have otherwise been enough time to activate a smarter emergency communication system that could have potentially saved lives.  I firmly believe that with the available technology and know-how that exists these days, disasters like this can be lessened considerably or prevented altogether.

About Chris Rider

Chris Rider is a Systems Architect for MessageNet Systems, focusing on several areas including client-side software (e.g. browsers), micro-computer hardware components, and mobile platforms such as Android. He graduated from the University of Southern Indiana with an Electronic-Business degree, and has done website development and intranet-supported workflow process consulting with businesses ranging from locally-owned restaurants to global Fortune 500 companies. In his off-time, he enjoys tinkering with new technology, Linux, photography, videography, writing, media-content creation, learning new languages (trying to tackle Korean, currently), and travel.

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