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We’re looking for a security system here at the San Rafael Public Library–some kind of remote way to indicate “Hey, something’s definitely wrong with staff member X who’s dealing with the public right now – go help!”

Staff at our various service desks at the Downtown Library (Circulation, Children’s, Adult, Administration) have no way to communicate to each other when something’s wrong at one of them (e.g. threatening individual, etc.).  The Library has two different floors and all of the desks are visually separated from each other – there is no line of sight from one to another – and in one case a door separates that desk from the rest of the building.  We were envisioning a flashing light system or something similar, easily, covertly, and quickly triggered with a button or a switch, and that would show the other desks which desk it was coming from. Our building does not have an intercom system, and staff are not always at their computers (often out on the floor), so something they can hold as a trigger, clip to a belt or a lanyard, would be more useful.  In short, we’re looking for something with multiple site-specific triggers and multiple output devices showing what’s been triggered.

Instead of spending hours researching this topic that I know nothing about, I put it out to the ALA Think Tank group on Facebook – knowing that the wisdom of the crowd would be faster and more extensive than anything I’d come up with on my own.  I thought I’d summarize the suggestions here for anyone else seeking out a similar solution. And hey – if you have another suggestion, bring it on!

Wireless call bell systems – These are like those little light-up vibrating things you get at some restaurants, such as these. Verdict: Might work; need to research more, especially re: how one triggers various models.

Centurion – I just like this for the Battlestar Galactica reference 😉 Seriously, though, this is another version of a wireless call system but this one can transmit out messages on multiple platforms simultaneously once triggered: two-way radios, pagers, phones, and email. Verdict: Might work; need to research how the triggering mechanism works more.

Instant Messaging – A number of people suggested having every staff member have IM up while at work and to use that to send out a quick “911” or some similarly short message. Verdict: Need a trigger that could stay with the staff member. Also, not very covert.

Computer Help Button – Several people said they have a one-click “call for help” button on their computers, usually used to call for back-up staff because it’s busy, but which could be repurposed for crazy town incidents.  A 2008 Code4Lib article was helpfully linked to (oh, you librarians!). Verdict: Once again, I don’t think the computer-based idea will work well for us as so many of the problems happen when staff are away from their computers.

Intercom – Some folks suggested saying your own name or the department’s name over the intercom as a signal for help. Verdict: If only we had an intercom system. Also, not very covert.

Vocera – A number of people are using or otherwise recommended Vocera.  These small portable transmitters and receivers could work really well for what we need. Verdict: Pricey. Need to research more on what kinds of money we’re talking about.

Phone System – A few different version of using the existing phone system were suggested. Setting up a mass-call option and using a code word to indicate a problem. Verdict: Our phone system is VOIP and we’ve been told before this isn’t possible (though I’m guessing it probably actually is). Also, unless it was a single-touch button I don’t think it would be covert enough.

Doorbell System – A system like this could work–basic doorbell. People suggested different ring-tones or a different number of rings depending on which desk it was (e.g. 1 for Adult, 2 for Circ, etc.). Verdict: Need to research more. This could be covert if the bells could be carried easily in one’s pocket and we could have multiple transmitters and multiple broadcast speakers too.

Walkie TalkiesLots of these out there and pretty cheap. Buy the small headsets to pair with the actual units, push the call button to beep everyone else.  Again, a coded number of beeps could work to indicate location of problem. One person suggested buying repeaters to help with the thick-walled-ness of our very old building. Verdict: Need to research more. Covert, yes. Would staff actually wear the headsets? Don’t know. – This was suggested (in lovely detail; thanks Brian!) as a kind of multi-pronged approach. Device, software, and desk-transmitters.  Verdict: This could totally work. Need to research pricing and implementation (e.g. our thick freaking walls).

Arduino Home Panic Button – This was suggested as an open source solution, which made my heart all warm and fuzzy.  Verdict: Need to research implementation more.

“Call-For-Help systems: Crowdsourced Ideas from the ALA Think Tank”

  1. Sean Reinhart Says:

    Sara, another way to solve this problem (and probably a few other problems) would be to improve the sightlines through the building. Consolidate service desks, take out shelving and walls that block views, etc. More expensive and not always possible, but totally worth it from an operational and safety perspective. Good luck with whatever solution you implement 🙂

  2. Sarah Says:

    Sean, I wish I could give you a floor plan of our library. Without at least a million dollar renovation, there’d be no way to do any of that. And I will never, ever, have a single service point. I refuse on principle and experience (having seen it work very poorly at its most “celebrated” implementation in the country).

  3. Sean Reinhart Says:

    OMG I made a typo in your name in my previous comment, Sarah, Sorry!

  4. The Rodent Says:

    I would have suggested printing some of those new plastic “Liberator” guns, but I guess the plans have gone missing… 😉

  5. Henry Mensch Says:

    Re: “walkie talkies” … many of these require licensing from the FCC. Licensing requirements will vary with the type of equipment. Not having a license can expose the library to significant fines. It’s easy to do this right, so if you go this way make sure to do your homework.

  6. Angie Says:

    I work within a two story library as well and we have a couple of mechanisms employed to call out for help. All staff have walkie talkie’s they wear every day. I’m not sure about licensing requirements because these were purchased by our Director prior to our opening. We also have an internal alarm system with panic buttons installed at the information desks. All staff have to do is press the panic button and the police are automatically alerted and set to respond to the library.

  7. Leah C Says:

    I’ve worked at libraries that have wireless doorbells, and they are a godsend. Even if the “trouble” in question is a long line of patrons, it always helps to have something audible one can use to summon backup that does not require yelling. Another branch I work at uses Vocera badges as combination phones/walkie talkies – conveniently, they can also be voice-activated to call the police, either 911 or the non-emergency local line.

  8. Jessie P Says:

    If I walked into a library and saw the staff wearing headsets, I might get confused and think I was in a B&N or American Eagle, and probably turn around and walk out. Then again, maybe it would make us look super hip and important. 😉

  9. Barry Taranto Says:

    I think the walkie-talkie system is the most cost-effective and easiest to implement quickly. There definitely are security concerns in the San Rafael Public Library. I suggested to Pata that SRPD officers stop by the library as they leave or return from their shifts on a regular basis. I even think a security guard making rounds during the peak-use hours would make for less stress on staff.

  10. Abigail Says:

    We’ve discussed this a number of times at all of the places I’ve worked and there doesn’t seem to be a particularly good answer. I like the idea of a panic button on the bottom of the desk. Too many of these options require a staff member who may be feeling uncomfortable to do something in front of the patron that the occasionally escalating patron can see/hear. I worry this could cause the situation to further quickly escalate–which is what you’re trying to avoid. I think we’ve asked for a panic button in the remodel of my current building.

    The best thing I’ve seen implemented to help keep trouble down was an incident reporting system. I’m on my third library now launching one of these. I wrote the one at the first library, trained people on the second, and wrote the one for the library I’m in now. Reporting when/where things happen in your building in a way that all staff see it doesn’t prevent/stop the event but allows everyone to be informed and can help staff know proper responses in the future or when a patron may need to be referred to the boss.

    Unfortunately I have no perfect answers. Good luck and let us know what works for you!

  11. Hillary Theyer Says:

    Two thoughts, we have used two different places. In one largish branch, we had no intercom, but our phones would work as such – we could do an “all speakerphone” call. We used it to make the closing announcements, and to page each other “Ms. Theyer, call on line 2” We had two trouble signals. “Ms. Theyer call on line 3” was a rescue call, as we had no line 3. That was someone giving me an escape hatch from a patron – I would go “My goodness, I need to take a call, excuse me a moment” and take a pretend call while my savior/colleague stepped up to help. Second trouble was “Supervisor to the front desk please” which was code for “If you work here, drop whatever you are doing and get out to the floor RIGHT NOW” It involved getting to a phone but unless it was a true physical threat (in which case, scream) you could invent any excuse – “let me get a supervisor” generally made an obnoxious person feel important until 7 staff members swarmed the situation and gave the desk person cover to act. without fear.

    Second one we have implemented in our main library – we call it “the bat phone” and it is simply a portable phone carried by person in charge. It ris a line like any other, works well even in a three story building. You call an extension and it rings on the phone, and on the desks of all of Library Administration. You can call the bat phone for trouble from “We’ve just called the fire department” to “the restroom is becoming a lake” and you get highest ranking person in charge. It is also a phone, so for patrons for whom we will call police if they come back, the desk can call the phone to quietly say “He’s here” and person in charge can retreat to a private space to make that call to PD.

    We also have the wireless doorbells – works well, but we only use those to call for help to a desk. We could easily implement a signal, the only hurdle is that they have a little delay to reset, so you can’t press them five times quickly and get five chimes, you have a little delay.

  12. Jesse Says:

    Have you read the book “Black Belt Librarian?” There might be some suggestions there on how to improve security within your current parameters.

  13. Sarah Says:

    I have. I’ve heard the author speak a few times too. He’s very knowledgeable. The “answer” to our library’s spatial challenges re: safety and security is to get a new building. There’s little that can be done here with what we have. Several architects and security consultants have said this to me, and I believe them.

  14. Megan Says:

    I guess my question is why do you need to be covert? If a staff person is uncomfortable for any reason, why do they have to ask for help in secret? I understand the fear of escalating a situation, but sometimes the reverse could happen. Perhaps the patron will get that they are being inappropriate and fix their behavior.

    I second the suggestion for the Black Belt Librarian. It is an easy read with some practical solutions.

  15. Chris Says:

    Regarding the system. Our library (a CA community college) currently uses them to page a back-up person for help when we get busy at a service desk. We also have stations so that patrons can push a button to page for assistance if someone is away from the desk. We have had this system for about two years and are considering looking for a replacement. We have found the pagers and the desk signal devices to be immense battery hogs and they require frequent monitoring to ensure they are working. When operating properly they do have excellent range and we have had successful pages go across campus and through our stone and concrete walls. While I do not mean to disparage the company; for our needs we have found them to be finicky and high maintenance.

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