Days following the Parkland massacre, in which 17 Florida students and teachers were shot to death by a former student, Bill Reynolds's phone was ringing off the hook in Clayton, Missouri.
Reynolds, a co-founder at emergency response app company CrisisGo, says that after a school shooting his company typically gets a "flurry" of inquiries. But after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, he described the inbound calls as a "deluge."
"Parkland was different. We had the largest uptick [of sales] in our history this week," says Reynolds. "We are getting calls from superintendents from big districts saying their community is demanding answers to how the school is prepared, and the superintendents are looking to us."
Emergency response technology is part of the disaster relief market, which, according to IBISWorld, brings in about $10.2 billion in revenue. The industry is made up of companies and organizations that are in the business of selling or supplying everything from shelter to medical relief after a natural or manmade disaster, from a tornado to an act of terrorism.
Mobile apps like CrisisGo are now part of a fast-growing segment within this industry. In a category long dominated by nonprofits, with little corporate presence, startups have taken notice. Last year, during the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in San Francisco, 30 teams pitched emergency response mobile apps.
CrisisGo was started in 2013 by three co-founders--Reynolds, an education software sales rep, Songwei Ma, a software engineer, and Jim Spicuzza, who had launched and sold a business that made content-management systems for school websites. The company says it now has between 45 and 50 full-time employees.
Reynolds got the idea for CrisisGo while he was working for Schoolwires, a company that builds websites for schools. A client asked if he could put the district's emergency response plan on the school website, so he did. On the way home, something nagged at him: In an emergency, a teacher wouldn't have time to sit down and check the emergency plan on a computer, but probably would be able to check a smartphone. Reynolds pitched the idea to Spicuzza, a friend from the edtech industry. Spicuzza brought on Ma, whom he had worked with in the past, and they started building the mobile app.
With school shootings becoming the new norm, schools are staffing up with armed security guards and metal detectors. CrisisGo is a less visible solution to help assuage the panic school administrators are feeling--a sort of emergency response Slack for the education market. If there's an emergency, a teacher can use the app to set off an alarm, access an evacuation plan, and chat with any other staff member in the school.
Today, about 14,000 schools across the country use CrisisGo's app to manage emergency situations and drills, ranging from active-shooter lockdowns to natural disasters and fires. One of the app's main features is a "panic button" that teachers can hit to send a school-wide alert (every phone and computer in the school will sound an emergency tone). Teachers can also live chat with the principal, faculty members, and the local police directly in the app. Evacuation routes and floor plans are included in the app's dashboard and school faculty can follow a checklist for specific emergencies.
CrisisGo offers a free version and an annual subscription version, which has expanded features like anonymous tip reporting. Schools in Lake Forest, Illinois; Carmichaels, Pennsylvania; Kirkwood, Missouri; Boston; and other areas have adopted the technology. Annual costs average about $5 per student and could range from $7,000 to $100,000 a year for a district, depending on size. Currently, about 8,300 schools are paid users. CrisisGo has also partnered with the American Association of School Administrators, a national organization for school superintendents, to help distribute a free version of the app to every laptop in schools as part of a safety toolkit program.
The U.S. educational market is just the start for CrisisGo. The Midwest upstart plans to scale its product globally, and to corporations. Recent new customers include United Nations International schools and 1 World Trade Center Observatory in New York City, its first corporate security customer.
The Kirkwood Public School district, one of CrisisGo's first paying customers, is already seeing the value of getting its entire faculty onto the app. In 2014, Levaughn Smart was hired to revamp the entire district's emergency response protocols. "The [school district's] crisis manual had to be updated--it was in a three-ring binder in a folder on the back of each classroom door, and no teachers ever looked at," says Smart.
Since then, says Smart, the school system has used CrisisGo twice during live situations--once to alert a school of a gas leak and the other time for a false alarm about a bomb threat. It's also rolling out a student version so kids can send anonymous tips to teachers about weapons, drugs, and bullying. While they haven't had to deal with an active-shooter situation yet, all this practice will prepare them for the unimaginable. "We found that it's a mass communication tool for everyday use," says Smart. "That way in an emergency, all our teachers will know exactly how to use it."