VENICE – One Saturday when Amy Emma was locked out of her classroom at Abby Kelley Foster Charter Public School in Worcester, Massachusetts, her husband Salvatore was able to work around the door lock, so she could get in.
“He came in and he broke in, in seconds,” she said.
The ease with which Salvatore, who admittedly had some contracting experience, opened the door led the two to discuss the need for improved school safety – specifically the fact that most school classroom doors must be locked by the teacher from the outside, even in if there were an active shooter.
That led to the founding of Defcon Products in January 2018, and its only product, TeacherLock, which can be retrofitted to any school door and locked from the inside by a teacher with a proprietary key in one quick motion.
The identical product is marketed under the name SaberLock to businesses also seeking to improve security for potential lockdown situations.
“In an active shooter, lockdown situation teachers would have to open the door, go into the hallway, lock it from the outside, jiggle the handle just to make sure it’s locked or not, come back and close the door,” Salvatore Emma said. “We thought that was preposterous.
“After we started looking into the market and reading all of the post-active shooter incident reports from Virginia Tech and Parkland and Sandy Hook and Santa Fe, all of the teachers were hesitant to go into the hall to lock the door,” he added. “Many doors were never locked.”
Most recently, on Nov. 30, a 15-year-old student killed three teenagers and injured eight other people in a school shooting at Oxford High School, in Oakland County Michigan.
The new locks were designed in consultation with law enforcement – including retired Secret Service and U.S. Marshals officers – and firefighters, with an eye toward maximizing ease of use in a stressful situation.
“We wanted to bring together all of the constituents to build the lock that meets the needs of all of them and the teachers,” Emma said.
The lock received UL certification in August 2019, and in October 2020 TeacherLock and Defcon Products were named Massachusetts manufacturer of the year.
This September, Defcon Products was awarded a sole-source purchase order from the U.S. Coast Guard for its locks.
A move to Venice
The Emmas, who always planned to retire to Florida, fast-tracked that decision last summer and moved to Venice, where they are opening corporate offices, a sales area and a small manufacturing facility.
Salvatore Emma said he’s been looking at several condominium locations for a site and would also consider partnering with a supplier who can handle machining and share space.
“We built it to be simple, fast to assemble and lean in terms of manufacturing,” he added. “We really only need two garage spaces and, believe it or not, we can do a lot out of that space.
The Massachusetts factory, he noted, can manufacture about 1,000 locks a week and they generally don’t want to keep more than 2,000 locks in stock, since they can be built so quickly.
The lock is made out of aircraft aluminum, with a stainless-steel deadbolt that’s been tested to a 3,000-pound tensile strength.
The mechanism has been tested to withstand the equivalent of 700 years of use, Emma said.
The locks can be retrofitted to either left-hand opening or right-hand opening doors.
The lock is attached to the door, while an aluminum block is fastened to the door frame.
To secure the door, the teacher uses a cylindrical key to push into the back of the lock. That triggers the stainless-steel bolt to engage with the metal block attached to the door frame.
There are tactile cues on the cylinder that allow the teacher to easily orient it the proper way to trigger the lock.
Salvatore Emma said the key is designed so a teacher can grip it properly without even looking. There’s one place to position the thumb and the index finger wraps around.
“It’s always oriented in the right position,” he added. “And our key doesn’t twist, you just walk up to the door and push and now it’s locked.
“One second and the door is locked and the teacher can move her students into the safe zone inside the classroom.”
To unlock the door, all anyone has to do is push a red lever that’s clearly marked “Push to Open.”
A test door the Emmas use for demonstration has a traditional, ADA-compliant door handle in place, with two versions of the TeacherLock in place. Pushing the red lever is one operation, and the twisting of the door handle is the second.
Defcon just received patent approval on that version of the lock on Nov. 18 – the Emmas were at the beach and received the news from their patent attorney via text message.
Firefighters and other first responders can trip the lock from the outside with another proprietary key, after loosening a bolt that covers the keyhole.
The teacher keys and first-responder keys are universal, so they can be used in any TeacherLock.
Emma noted that 600 first-responders in Wichita – one of his larger clients – all have keys in their kits.
A second version of the lock is positioned below the door handle. It features a black shark fin on the top of the lock. When the teacher twists the door handle to open the traditional lock, the handle connects with the shark fin, which then trips the same mechanism as the “Push to Open lever.
That lock is suitable for states where codes require doors to be opened with only one operation.
There is still a patent pending on the shark fin addition to the lock.
The National Fire Protection Association came out with relaxed safety codes to allow for a two-operation door opening process, Emma said, but many states haven’t adopted that, which means the TeacherLock II, with the shark fin, would be required.
The suggested retail price for the original lock is $260 each, while the lock with the shark fin carries a suggested price of $280 – though volume discounts can bring the cost down considerably.
In addition to the Coast Guard and the Wichita, Kansas, school district – which is the largest district in the state of Kansas, with 81 schools and 12 special program sites – the U.S. Navy is evaluating the lock as well.
The company has yet to make an active effort with Florida school districts, though Emma recently sent an email to Sarasota Schools Police Chief Tim Enos about the locks.
To date, TeacherLock and SaberLock are the only devices of their kind to earn the unsolicited endorsement of Dr. Joseph Erardi, who served as superintendent of schools in Newtown, Connecticut, after the December 2012 shooting in Sandy Hook.
Erardi approached the TeacherLock booth at a trade show.
As part of his job, Erardi polled district teachers to ask what could have been done better, to prevent or minimize the impact of the shooter.
“The teachers overwhelmingly said, we need to lock the door from the inside, quickly, period,” Salvatore Emma said.
In a quote that’s prominently displayed on the company’s website, Erardi called the product “the gold standard within the industry.”
Salvatore Emma called that praise “humbling.”
A Defcon handout compares the effectiveness of TeacherLock to other enhanced security options. The option that ticks almost as many boxes as TeacherLock is an industry standard lock retrofitted to be locked from the inside and the outside.
Defcon claims the average time to lock a TeacherLock door – in both stressed and unstressed situations – is 3.4 seconds while it could take up to 15.9 seconds for a teacher to find the appropriate key and use it to lock the traditional lick.
“It’s just too hard to use in a highly adrenalized situation,” Salvatore Emma said.
“It’s a labor of love. Our mission is simple: we want to protect every single classroom door in the country,” he added. “If we save one person child or teacher, we’ve done our jobs.”
Earle Kimel primarily covers south Sarasota County for the Herald-Tribune and can be reached at email@example.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Salvatore Emma and Amy Emma moved Defcon Products to Venice