Eighteen-year-old Salvador Ramos murdered 21 people at a Texas elementary school last May. But might things have been different if a detection system had quickly alerted authorities to a man with a gun before the first shot? A group of former special forces has invented a new high-tech security solution for schools. Scott Thuman reports.
In America, mass shootings happen at an average rate of more than ten each week. Schools often the target, as in May, when 18-year-old Salvador Ramos killed 19 children and two adults in Uvalde County, Texas. As school districts struggle to identify the threat and stop it in time.
A team of former Navy Seals thinks they have a partial solution.
Sam Alaimo: I think we all found when we left the Seal Teams a lack of purpose, a lack of unity, and that's what we sought to regain here with a noble mission.
Sam Alaimo is one of the founders of ZeroEyes; a Philadelphia company created with the sole mission of stopping shootings before they begin.
Sam Alaimo: What we're trying to do is give first responders the situational awareness they need to react that much more quickly to a threat before a shot is even fired.
Because, they say, it is oddly common for shooters to pause and prepare with weapon in hand, sometimes for minutes before a single shot is fired.
It's what happened in Parkland, Florida, when Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students, and at the Washington Navy Yard, when Aaron Alexis was seen on security cameras carrying a shotgun before he murdered 12.
The former elite warriors wondered, what if the second that gun is presented, it could trigger an alarm. So they developed an artificial intelligence system that's sophisticated enough to recognize a weapon being carried, in just a couple of seconds.
As Rob Huberty, another former Navy Seal and company leader, explains, the AI system monitors thousands of security cameras at schools, offices, and military bases that have signed up for the service.
Rob Huberty: An algorithm is going to make a determination, and it says, maybe this is a gun. And it's going to draw to the attention through just one picture, and it's going to be a box drawn around it, and this operator is going to have to make that determination. Gun, no gun?
Information they relay to the school and law enforcement.
What makes this system unique is the vets have spent years teaching their software to recognize all types of weapons, carried in different ways, in their own Hollywood-grade green-screen studio.
Scott: So in here, you can be in a casino, you can be in a shopping mall, you can be in a high school?
Rob Huberty: Absolutely.
Scott: Because in here you're training it, every angle, what they would look like.
Rob Huberty: On every type of camera that you possibly could have.
And they test it out constantly. In this case, a mock shooter randomly walks through their office.
Drills to keep the operations center sharp and calm, using a staff of military veterans who verify the presence of a gun and let law enforcement or security know exactly where the shooter is, what they're doing, and which building exits are safe to use. It's all designed to cut down the confusion that happens when a mass shooting begins, and people rush to report it even as they're trying to flee.
Scott: It's very easy for me to see right now that she's got a gun and is walking by this particular location. So this is just feeding me minute-by-minute.
Rob Huberty: Theoretically, if they were to drop that weapon and they were to hide somewhere else, you still know what that is because, in a lot of these scenarios, they actually do that.
The system is in 25 states now; they hope all 50 by the end of the year.
Christopher Heilig: Every day, the first thing we're thinking about is safety and security.
Christopher Heilig is the superintendent of the Rancocas Valley Regional High School in New Jersey. Tasked with caring for more than 2,000 students, now relying on the new gun detection technology to keep them safe.
Christopher: Heilig: We did an active shooter drill in 2019, and the first drill was done without the ZeroEyes technology, and we were able to reach the threat in about three minutes. With the technology, the next drill that they did, it decreased that in half.
Scott: So you went from three minutes down to 90 seconds.
Christopher Heilig: That's correct — roundabout.
Scott: What did you think when you realized the time difference?
Christopher Heilig: It was unbelievable. It was just "sold!" Because that's the goal.
But there are hurdles: concerns over privacy rights and, of course, costs. But this new American-built technology, designed to save vital time, could be one answer to America's mass shootings.
Sharyl (on-camera): And are there other technologies and systems being tested?
Scott: There are. For example, some South Carolina schools have replaced metal detectors with those full-body, airport-style scanners. And then you've got software companies that are monitoring email, web chats, and web searches on some school computers. All of this to detect threats, but it's a pretty big business now. We're talking, by some estimates, a $3 billion-a-year industry. And a lot of taxpayer money going to that now.
Sharyl: Well do you know how a parent could find out if any of these systems are being used in their children's schools?
Scott: Well ZeroEyes, the company that we just profiled, for obvious reasons, doesn't publish a list of schools it monitors. However, the school district that we visited that you saw, they have made their parents aware that they're using the system.