DHS Striving to Improve School-Wide PA System

Galina Bouyer, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Whether it’s because of something as routine as the bells between classes or as essential as school-wide security announcements, most DHS students and staff know that the school has been having problems with the public announcement system for over a year now. Just last Friday, a number of classrooms in X-hall did not hear the bell signal the end of class. And in the fall of 2018, the school faced a major issue when announcements made by the front office often couldn’t be heard in classrooms or certain hallways. On November 15, 2018, DHS underwent a lockdown drill that doubled as a way to test the extent of the system’s issues. According to an email sent out by Principal Kathryn Anderson, the system had undergone some “extensive work” in the weeks leading up to the drill, as DHS believed in “the importance of testing our current communication systems so that we are prepared for an emergency situation at any moment.”

Since then, however, DHS has seen a number of improvements. “It’s been some time since we’ve grown concerned,” said Assistant Principal Ken Williams. Williams, who’s familiar with the process at the administrative level, confirmed that part of why DHS became so concerned with these issues was the importance of student and staff safety, especially in the case of ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate) drills and emergency situations. “As school security has increased and our awareness of how important it is that you can hear something from every spot in the building increased, that’s when it became a real front-burner issue,” Williams noted.

In order to ensure that some form of communication was possible, DHS not only dedicated time and money to fix the PA system but also found other ways to reach each classroom. One low-tech method was purchasing fifteen megaphones in 2018, which are now all scattered throughout various classrooms in case of emergency. Another is the system of phones that are in each classroom.

“The point of one of our designs was to almost–I don’t want to say overdo it–but to have have a couple systems in place so that we aren’t relying on just one, because this is so important. So we have backups. And we have more sound coming through more speakers than we ever had before,” Williams explained.

While the announcements and phone systems have been working relatively well since last year, not every part of the system was in perfect working condition. The remaining issue that’s been the most relevant since the beginning of the 2019/2020 school year has been problems with the bells that signal the start and end of each class period. Sometimes the bell will glitch, sometimes it will be aggressively loud, and sometimes it doesn’t ring at all. Jeff Berger-White is an English teacher who’s had first-hand experience listening to the bell in his own classroom. While he doesn’t feel that it’s particularly disruptive to the learning environment, he’s still encountered some issues. “It’s not something that you get comfortable with, because it’s dissonant. It sounds like there’s something wrong with it. It sounds like it’s mechanically off. It doesn’t sound like that’s the intended sound,” he said.

According to Williams, however, part of that may be by design. “It’s loud, but it’s purposefully loud, because we feel strongly that even above the noise of hallways and the noise of a classroom, if we need to cut in there and say there is an event, we need that level of volume,” he explained. “It’s loud because we need to make sure that people hear it in an emergency situation.” Still, he admits that the volume is still something that’s being adjusted. And while most of the other issues have been minimized, there are still instances of bells that buzz ominously or not at all in certain parts of the school.

So why, exactly, do those malfunctions exist in the first place? According to Williams, it’s mostly due to the age of the building–and, by default, the age of the system. “I don’t think there’s any other cause other than just age,” Williams confirmed. “Where the oldest speakers and wiring have been, well, this building was built in 1959. So our original parts of the building, some of that was working off original wiring–not anymore, but it was up to that point. And some of the speakers were older too and while they have a good lifespan, they don’t live forever.” Plus, there’s also the issues that come up regarding the parts of the building that haven’t been here since 1959. The original building only consisted of the general area of I Hall, J, Hall, E Hall, and a little bit of Q Hall, so any additions since then used more recent technology that needed to be connected to the older system. Additionally, the amplifiers, which regulate volume control for the entire system, are another fairly recent addition, as they were installed in 2000.

This combination of different levels of technology certainly did not make updating the system any easier. While some rooms had perfectly functional bells, others heard glitchy sounds or nothing at all. DHS security manager George Grubb explained that “the idea was to renovate it, to revamp it, to improve upon it. The system still worked, they said we just needed to improve upon certain areas and then you would put in older wires connected into today’s wires. It was a design and we were just trying to get it figured out.”

Grubb has also been in charge of a more hands-on approach to solving the system’s issues. He and his security team have been testing the bells and announcement system by playing music —Bruce Springsteen, to be exact—in different areas, and then physically going to those places to make sure that the sound could be heard. “We walked around numerous times, identifying issues, identifying problems, trying to decide if it was just a problem with the volume, a problem with a little thing that we’d fix, or if there was a bigger problem,” he explained. Scheduling those tests was also hectic because of the sheer amount of clubs, teacher meetings, sports, and other events that happen outside of regular school hours. “Schools run basically 24/7, there’s always something going on. So we couldn’t do it at 10 o’clock at night because then we had outside speakers — we would be worried about the neighborhood,” Grubb continued. “It was always trying to find the right time that we can test the speakers without interfering or getting in the way of any other groups that are in the school.”

A map charting the locations of the various megaphones throughout the school. Image courtesy of Deerfield High School

Grubb and his team aren’t the only people working to solve the issue, however. The district also brought in an outside company to help identify and eliminate any bugs. The contract with Malko Communication Services, a Chicago-based company, was approved by the Board of Education on September 16 of 2019, on the recommendation of the district’s facilities management. Prior to that, other companies had been brought in to help, but due to some ongoing disagreements, the administration declined to comment on any work they may have done. Regardless, Malko has been the most effective by far. “It’s been quite a process,” Williams confessed.

At this point, however, both Williams and Grubb feel that the majority of the issues with the system have been solved. “I’m very happy to say I think that we are in really good shape. We are in the process where we believe it is all been fixed,” Grubb said. “We need to just let it go now and leave it alone, let it do its job.”

In the event of any other glitches or malfunctions, the administration is staying open to feedback, particularly from staff members. Williams in particular keeps track of surveys and documents, which are available to teachers, and takes note of people’s responses–especially after drills. He and Grubb also welcome any unsolicited feedback from students or staff that they believe could help improve the system. Still, teachers such as Berger-White note that there hasn’t been any recent active communication on the status of the system. “I think students and staff should have an update. We should know,” he said.

For now, though, Grubb is confident that the situation will continue to improve.“Please understand and know that we’ve taken this very seriously.,” he said. “The goal was to make sure that the system is working as best as we can make it work. We appreciate everybody’s patience.”