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​​​​​​​​​Photo by iStock; Security Management Illustration ​

Panic Bars Provide Students with Shelter in California

​Higher learning establishments in California are increasingly aware of the ramifications when preventative measures fail to keep students safe. The state suffered through the 2014 Isla Vista stabbings and killings, subsequent active shooter attacks at other higher learning facilities, and the state supreme court ruling that universities owe a duty to protect students from foreseeable violence during school hours (Regents of University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Supreme Court of California, 2018).

One state university campus began to question what one single person, with no training, could do to deter someone intent on hurting others. Turns out, saving lives can be as easy as the push of a button.

"We want to protect the students at all costs," Lisa Bickmore, supervising locksmith for California State University, Fullerton, says. The university tasked Bickmore with finding a way to secure as many classrooms as possible, but without the benefit of access control infrastructure, such as card readers or the ability for police to remotely lock down a facility. Although the goal was to ensure the safety of occupants in a classroom, the insides of these rooms lacked secure panic hardware.

"The way it was, you needed a key almost everywhere on this campus to lock or unlock a door. There wasn't a way to physically lock the door. If the handle was open from the outside, there wasn't a way to lock it from the inside. A lot of our professors wouldn't have keys so there would be no way for them to actually physically lock the door," Bickmore says.

Fullerton officials wanted an emergency option, where anyone, even without special knowledge or training, could secure the door without leaving the classroom, avoiding scenarios that would risk alerting an attacker to the presence of people in a room or directly expose them to an attack. "You get the scenario where people are trying to hold the door closed with a belt, or pulling on the handle so no one can actually physically open it, or barricading it with desks and whatever they can find inside the room, and that's what they wanted to get away from," Bickmore says.

Bickmore ensured that classrooms with door handles had button locks and switched out handles requiring a key on doors partitioning classrooms from hallways; ultimately, Fullerton wanted secure panic hardware installed inside the rooms. This meant finding technology that would work for more than 20 buildings with classrooms, lecture halls, and student labs. On a campus with more than 8,000 doors security personnel focused on rooms with an occupancy of more than eight people.

Ultimately, Bickmore settled on electronic dogging functions and, after researching available options, found Detex's panic bar and button, which met the university's need for affordability and ease of installation. The company's electric dogging device was designed for entrance and exit doors with panic or fire exit hardware.

"I needed a product that would cover my current panic bars that I have on the doors right now," Bickmore says. This feature would allow the current hardware to be replaced without ruining the fire rating of the doors or replacing the doors altogether. "If you have to start replacing fire doors, now you're getting costly."

Bickmore also considered the new panic bars' durability, given students' ability to be rough on the facilities. "They destroy hardware on this campus. They hit it with trashcans, and they beat things up," Bickmore says. "This product is just real beefy, and it takes a beating and holds up. If it had been [cost-effective] but a shoddier product, I probably would have not gone with it."

Although she considered products from alternate providers, the price points were too high for her needs, sometimes up to a $600 difference per door.

According to Bickmore, who has worked as a locksmith for about 30 years, the installation process was "pretty easy" thanks to a Detex product guide for the electric dogging device, which was included with every lock. Despite that ease, installation could be awkward for just one person, taking up to an hour to complete, because "you need a third hand a lot of times, just to hold the bar on the inside or outside tram and everything else," Bickmore says. However, after getting the hang of the process, Bickmore and two other team members managed to bring that time down to 33 minutes, attributing the ease to the precision of the guide.

"The guide is spectacular because when you install panic hardware, what will happen if you're off even less than a quarter of an inch, the head of your bar will hit the strike, or you'll be too far away and the latch won't sit on the strike properly." But with the guide, the person installing the bar knows exactly where to drill and how far back to start drilling, without a measuring tape. "I found with this, all I needed was a level and a pen. And, of course, a drill bit," Bickmore says.

Bickmore and her team could work only during the weekends, because the installations could not occur while class was in session. The first round of installations stretched about 17 to 18 months.

Altogether, Bickmore retrofitted more than 400 rooms, with about 55 classrooms featuring the panic bars, all within the span of roughly 750 hours. The remaining rooms feature mechanical locking hardware that accommodates sheltering in place.

"Thankfully, we haven't actually had to use the locks yet," Bickmore says. But should the time come, the panic bar locks are almost self-explanatory to use. If a student or teacher in a classroom hears that an active shooter or other shelter-in-place incident is occurring on the campus, they can push the yellow button by the door to lock it from the inside, protecting others in the room and allowing the person who pushed the button to move away from the door—useful on a campus where most of the doors have small view windows. "If you're there trying to hold the door closed, the person on the other side just shoots because they can see you. This way you can lock the door, you can go lie against the wall so they don't have a target to see and shoot at. You don't have to barricade the door, and you can just get away from it," Bickmore says. The door will unlock only when someone from inside the room pushes the bar to exit; otherwise, the doors lock when the building's timer kicks in at 10 p.m.

To avoid any potential confusion, Bickmore added signage to each panic bar's button that reads, "Push to Lock Door." "That little thing solved so many questions for the people on the campus," Bickmore says.

The campus police department also put together a video tutorial on the panic bars for new faculty and staff in case of shelter-in-place situations. Because the devices are so straightforward to use and do not require a connection to alarms or other emergency systems, little coordination between Bickmore's department and campus police was required.

The university is considering expanding the use of the panic bars to exterior doors, perhaps with centrally located buttons throughout the facility, allowing someone to lock down a building from a hallway. But for the immediate future, the university will be adding the bars as the needs arises.

Bickmore says that the best part of the system is its flexibility. "If we do end up getting access control…these bars can be added. The power supplies can be added," Bickmore says. 

For more information: Ken Kuehler, [email protected], 1.800.732.0746.