Software firm aims to reduce MCI response times with new app

The CERA application is designed to connect police and EMS providers with teachers, students and others in life-threatening situations

David Lyons
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

DAVIE, Fla. — It took the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland just minutes to kill 17 people and wound 17 others. But authorities did not reach him until he escaped the school and was arrested on a nearby street.

At Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport the previous year, where a gunman killed five and injured six, authorities quickly arrested him. But before the shooting ended, chaos enveloped police agencies who chased false rumors of a second shooter and passengers stampeded for the exits.

A makeshift memorial was outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
A makeshift memorial was outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. (Photo/Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

In both cases, argues Ed McGovern, a retired major from the Hallandale Police Department who responded to both incidents, communications breakdowns led to confusion among law enforcement agencies who lacked information on who was located where.

Now, he is ramping up a software company in Davie called CERA Software Inc., which is focused on cutting the time it takes for police and EMS to respond, coordinate and save lives in mass casualty events.

“Between those two [events] I came to the conclusion that it’s our communications that are really slowing us down — between 911 and communicating with two-way radios with no visuals,” he said. “All of those get bottlenecked.”

At the high school, he said, a number of victims died from blood loss. “It was terrible — they didn’t survive because help didn’t arrive in time. I know this from live video that came out from the school; you could hear cries for help from students who eventually passed away.”

He hopes his software can make a difference.

How it works

CERA, which describes itself as a “real-time active threat management system,” stands for Critical Event Response App.

It’s designed to connect police and medical responders directly with teachers, students, and others involved in life-threatening situations. Potential victims can report crucial information into an app, giving police and other first responders live overviews of an entire incident, including mapping of where potential victims are in a school or campus.

McGovern says there are three key goals for responders to quickly accomplish when they are summoned to an emergency: contain the crime scene, neutralize the threat and treat and evacuate the injured.

The system comes in four parts, according to the company’s website:

  • A mobile component that connects teachers, students, and staff with police and EMS personnel, instantly notifying police and EMS of the situation. Teachers and students use an app to report incidents in real-time. The app connects to the police and medical professionals, who can respond accordingly. Hundreds of suspect and injury locations can be reported and plotted on a map at a rate that McGovern says is “faster than it takes an operator to pick up a call.”
  • An online operations center that gives police, fire and EMS information about the assailant and victims in real time. The software component allows them to mange their responses through a laptop or tablet. Commanders can use it to manage the incident in one place. The information is in front of them so they can plot it on a map showing the location of each caller and the shooting instead of sorting through a myriad of calls from 911. “Officers can descend on a school and neutralize the threat at the same time,” McGovern said. As soon as police have taken control of the scene, fire rescue can tend to the most seriously injured.
  • A web component serves as a portal where schools, police departments and EMS can manage their organizations, employees and students. Perimeters and command posts can be pre-set by police. School administrators manage their own databases containing information about each person using the app. “The more people we have on the app, the better chances we have of accurate reporting,” McGovern said. Anyone triggering a false alarm can be traced because administrators can identify their phones through the owner’s sign-on information.
  • An open platform that allows third parties to connect to the system via cellphones using QR codes. It allows panic-button apps, mobile emergency apps, and crime management systems to assemble at a centralized place.

A damning report and need for improvement

McGovern wasn’t the only one disturbed by the disorganized nature of police response to the tragedies. In an exhaustive 458-page report, the Marjory Douglas High School Public Safety Commission noted that an inhibited police response was among the multiple causes that led to 17 deaths and widespread injuries at the school on Feb. 14, 2018.

“Further contributing was the unsatisfactory law enforcement response, which includes the flawed City of Parkland 911 system and the flawed and failed Broward County law enforcement radio system,” the commission said. “The Broward Sheriff’s Office’s inadequate active assailant response policy, the abysmal response by the school’s SRO, a failed response by some law enforcement officers and supervisors and BSO’s flawed unified command and control of the scene were also identified as areas that need to be addressed.”

The report was released on Jan. 2, 2019.

McGovern acknowledged that systems have emerged since the two tragedies to improve communications. They include “next generation” 911 systems where maps give police better locating tools, and “panic apps” to notify police of emergencies.

The airport has also installed an electronic warning system that notifies travelers of an emergency.

Davie Police testing system

The Davie Police Department started testing the CERA system along with the town fire department in mid-February.

“These active killer incidents are over in less than 5 minutes,” said Chief Stephen Kinsey. He, too, thinks the CERA system can cut response times.

One of his department’s biggest responsibilities is the South Florida Education Center, a cluster of colleges, high schools and an adult education center that includes Nova Southeastern University’s main campus and Broward College.

Each weekday, thousands of students, faculty and staffers gather at the various schools. “We have school resource officers at all of those,” Kinsey said.

Last Tuesday, police and fire department members got their first look at the CERA system.

“We’re still in the beginning stages of this,” he said. “They [CERA] want to make sure they are doing it to the specs that we need. We’re the boots on the ground.”

Kinsey was also among the responders to the airport and Parkland shootings.

“What attracted me to this is that I was someone who was at the two most tragic events in South Florida history,” he said. “Any type of product that can help us with response time or to help firefighters get to the victims and triage them is something I want to listen to and see if it’s a benefit to the Davie Police Dept.”

From survivors to advisers

CERA has attracted the attention of two survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a former teacher and a student. Both have become advisers to the company, sharing their experiences during the shooting.

Ivy Schamis was a teacher who has since moved to the Washington, D.C., area to join the staff of a private day school. The gunman killed two of her students and injured four as he punched a hole in a doorway window and fired his AR-15 indiscriminately around the classroom.

“Two students were murdered in front of all of us,” she said. “The gunman ambushed us that day. It was completely preventable, as you know. When I first heard of CERA I thought this really could have helped us.”

She said one student called authorities on one of the few active cellphones in the room and whispered the room number into the phone.

“The kids were trying to reach 911,” Schamis recalled. “I couldn’t get any reception on my phone. When we heard SWAT coming into the building they knew she was whispering, ‘1214.’ But we didn’t know if the gunman was still in the building. We were all crouched in place very, very quiet. We couldn’t access the injured at the time.”

From what she now knows about the CERA system, she suggested the app element could have brought help faster and saved lives.

She said her current school does not have the connectivity to emergency services that CERA envisions.

“This is a fairly new concept, I think,” she said, adding that she hopes the public becomes aware of the system.

Danielle Gilbert, a former MSD student who is now a junior studying criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, became a company adviser two weeks ago.

“During the shooting, it was obvious to everybody that law enforcement should have entered the building a lot sooner,” she said. “We were in our classrooms for 25 minutes from when shooting started until the law enforcement came to our room.”

“We were kind of sitting ducks,” she said. “We took blankets and wrapped it around [the injured]. We were in such a state of shock we didn’t even know how we were supposed to help these people.”

With CERA, she expects to be involved in running a focus group and helping to test the app.

“I think it’s really a good idea,” she said, including the aspect where people can report that somebody nearby is injured.

NSU connection

McGovern, who used his retirement funds and family money to get started, founded his company during the months between the airport and Parkland events. CERA started gaining traction as a business last fall when it joined the Alan B. Levan | NSU Broward Center of Innovation, the public-private partnership between Nova Southeastern University and Broward County that helps entrepreneurs develop their companies. The center offers programs, events and networking to assist early-stage startups.

“When Ed first came to us, he was especially talking about schools based on his experience,” said John Wensveen, chief Innovation officer at NSU and executive director at the center. He said he and McGovern broadened the discussion to hospitals, cruise lines, airlines and sports venues.

With the center as a home, McGovern has access to specialists in other fields who can help with new technologies, financing sources and networking.

“He learned that technologies can be applied to different environments,” Wensveen said. “We are seeing a lot of interest.”

“In terms of my gut feel, it’s going to be successful,” he added. “It’s very timely and it’s past due, given the numbers of incidents around the country.”


©2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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