Finding the shooter: gunshot detection can help stem or stop tragedies
As the spectre of the active shooter looms large, firms are working to develop and hone technologies to help mitigate and even stop the damage these attacks can inflict — by finding shooters quickly and getting that information to the relevant parties.
Gunshot detection systems use audio and visual sensors to pick up the sound and sight of gunfire and pinpoint where exactly it is coming from. These systems can also communicate with video management systems (VMS) to capture images and video clips of the shooter.
Once all of the relevant information is collected — where the shot was fired, when it was fired, and who fired it — it is sent to first responders, security teams and affected civilians, through email, text or notification apps.
For Kathleen Griggs, president and founder of Virginia-based Databouy, which provides gunshot detection through a system called ShotPoint, VMSes are particularly helpful in identifying shooters.
“We want to make sure that we get not only the best picture of the shooter but we want to get it as close to the moment as the shot has actually occurred so we have the best evidence and so you can positively identify who the shooter is. That’s the information you need to close down the shooter, mitigate the event, and make sure everything is completely safe and clear for EMS to arrive,” says Griggs.
ShotPoint uses acoustic sensors to pick up the sound of gunfire, each of which has four microphones that can work together in an array to find the exact spot where a shot is fired. Individual sensors can also communicate other sensors in the area to further pinpoint and verify where the shooter is, then the data is fused to create a single report.
“The multiple sensor approach is what allows us to get good localization and it also eliminates false detection,” says Griggs.
ShotPoint can be adapted for both indoor and outdoor use, but another firm has developed two separate technologies to meet the challenges of detecting gunfire in indoor and outdoor spaces.
Shooter Detection Systems LLC (SDS), a Massachusetts-based firm, provides both an outdoor system, Boomerang, and an indoor, Guardian.
Boomerang is an audio system based on mic-ed up sensors that calculate a shooter’s location based on the shockwave of a bullet and a gunshot’s muzzle blast energy. Sensors can either be placed on fixed structures or go mobile, either affixed to vehicles or attached to a person.
Christian Connors, CEO of SDS, says the Boomerang is typically used to monitor electrical substations and critical infrastructure, targets vulnerable to terrorist attack or sabotage.
Conversely, the indoor Guardian sensors use a combination of microphones to pick up acoustics and infrared camera sensors to detect the muzzle flash from a gun, something more easily seen in the close confines of an indoor space.
“We validate the acoustics with the infrared,” says Connors.
Getting it right, fast
Guardian and Boomerang sensors can be used together to protect premises that have indoor and outdoor space, such as sports stadiums and concert venues, and the challenge of walls (which impede acoustics), can be overcome with strategic placement of sensors.
“It’s not cheap to put these sensors everywhere, so we cover where the shootings happen, which is hallways, common areas, entrance ways, and any large gathering areas…where the likelihood of an active shooter event is to happen,” says Connors.
Large event spaces are also challenging because of noise, and this can be addressed, as well as in other loud locations like factories, with lighting alerts to go along with PA announcements. A blue light signaling an active shooter is easy to understand, even in loud and chaotic circumstances.
Connors continues, “Things like the Vegas incident, god forbid, any location where there’s a large gathering of people, you set up a couple of these sensors and report the location of the shooter in about a second and a half.”
Connors says his system is not only fast, but reliable, with the Guardian system boasting a 100 per cent detection rate and zero false alerts.
Surprisingly, Connors does not attribute this to machine learning, but old-fashioned experience and testing.
“You learn a lot over time looking at log files and data,” he says. “We have been doing this for so long we don’t have a lot to learn about what gun shots are and what they’re not. I know some other folks using AI, that implies that there is learning going on. We have the learnings finished.”
Griggs agrees: “What we have behind our system is a decade of test data. So, whether we call it experience or however we categorize both the event and the environment, and how we know what works, there’s no substitute for actual live testing. So, I would say that this a problem space that we just know really well.”
Born in combat
Both firms have garnered extensive test data and experience not just from their work in civilian spaces but through their military roots.
The Guardian system cut its teeth in Iraq and Afghanistan, starting in 2003, detecting sniper fire while affixed to soldiers, transport trucks, helicopters — in the latter cases, at high speeds. The system was an initiative of The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research and development agency within the United States Department of Defense (DOD). Boomerang is still distributed to military customers through an SDS sister company.
As for Databouy, Griggs is a former navy engineer and technical agent for DARPA, and secured a US$18.5 million contract from the DOD.
“We have 10 years of DOD research behind our systems,” says Griggs.
Both firms moved into the private sector and commercialized in the last few years, and are now on the front lines of a different fight, keeping workers, students and people in general safe from violence, be it organized terrorism, a lone wolf shooting or street crime.
“We’re in everything from airports to Fortune 500 companies, universities, schools, aquariums, city halls, governor’s mansions,” says Connors.
Griggs says her ShotPoint system is used in hospitality, industry, corporate spaces and schools as well.
Municipalities are also interested in these systems to monitor and prevent violent street crime and other incidents.
“Cities are looking at trying to target areas where there’s a lot of high crime and a lot of shooting,” says Griggs.
Outdoor shot detection technology has already been adopted by a large number of cities across the world. This summer, Toronto’s city council approved funding for California-based ShotSpotter Inc.’s audio surveillance tool, following a mass shooting in the city’s Greek Town.
For her part, Griggs is hoping to get involved in this market. “We’re set up to go on street lights We’re definitely hoping that cities start thinking about including our system when they’re putting in new streetlights.”
Connors, on the other hand, is setting his sights on adapting indoor sensors on a massive urban scale.
“Hopefully what we’ll be able to announce here in the first quarter is one of the largest cities in the U.S. doing something that no one’s ever done, all about indoor active shooter detection,” Connors says.
Despite his optimism on this new initiative, he is still preaching patience. “City outdoor gunshot detection has become somewhat of a standard. We’re not there yet for indoor, but it’s growing at a pretty fast clip.”
Databouy is even looking beyond just detecting gunshots, to tracking falling objects or car crashes.
“These are things that happen in a busy environment that cameras don’t necessarily pick up very well, that actually do enhance public safety,” Griggs says. “In all likelihood, you’re going to have a sensor that’s put out there, that’s going to sit out there for 20 years that may never hear a shot. But it’s going to hear a lot of other things, that sending an alert would help for public safety reasons.”
As for the future of shooter detection technology, Connors is predicting growth: “You’ll see it get more widespread. We’re always looking at larger coverage areas, lower costs, easier installations, and for us a lot of it is focused on the market itself. It’s still a very small market, compared to the overall security industry.”
Fueling that growth for SDS is its network of integrators, which includes firms like Johnson Controls, Convergint and Siemens, which have been spending advertising capital on gunshot detection — not the case a few years ago.
“Integrators are seeing that the market is growing, and they’ve put a lot of horsepower behind it,” says Connors.
This story appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of SP&T News Magazine.