Emergency Notification - Carnegie Mellon University

In the wake of recent shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, just about every major university has invested in a new emergency notification system in the last few years.

At Carnegie Mellon University (PA), technologists decided to take a different approach: Working together with local solution provider Metis Secure, they built a crisis alert system designed to distribute notifications into specific rooms of specific buildings in the event of emergencies. This new system is particularly unique because of its hardware/software platform, and its combined use of FM-bandwidth radio waves and mesh WiFi networking to speed vital messages and instructions to the campus community.

Here’s how the system works: In select buildings on campus, wall-mounted devices are connected wirelessly back at the campus security office. When a dispatcher identifies an emergency, he uses the software to pinpoint precisely which devices he wants to use to sound the alarm. That alarm can take any number of forms: flashing lights, a piercing siren, a voice recording that plays through a speaker, and text that appears on an LCD screen. The same text information can be synched with e-mails and SMS messages as well.

When a broadcast is made, it travels over both FM radio and mesh network channels. The wireless mesh component enables Metis Secure devices to reach zones that don’t ordinarily receive wireless signals by pulling data from other Metis Secure devices nearby.

Planning for the project began in early 2006. Project lead Madelyn Miller, director of the university’s Environmental Health and Safety department, was looking for a faster, more reliable way to target emergency information to specific locations, something that the school’s existing emergency notification solutions could not do. Cell calls, text messages, and e-mails, for instance, had message delivery times in excess of 30 minutes. Complicating matters was the fact that in some spots on campus, broadcasts were not reaching recipients due to poor cellular and police radio frequency reception.

The Metis Secure team had worked with companies with extensive experience making weather warning radios for the maritime industry, and was exploring the concept of broadcasting warnings via mesh and using a digital subcarrier Radio Broadcast Data System (RBDS) on FM bandwidth. Metis Secure built prototypes for testing in 2007, combining digital FM chips as well as spread spectrum mesh networking technology. CMU signed on the following year.

As part of the project, CMU students conducted studies on industrial design and human computer interface issues relating to emergency notification on campus. CMU’s Mellon Institute, a huge stone building, was selected as a “worst case” test bed because of the number of difficult-to-reach areas such as basements and subbasements. Beta testing was conducted during a six-month period last year.

Today, messages sent through the new system take less than 10 seconds to deliver. What’s more, the system is not plagued by reliability or interference issues that other products might have. Since the system is not dependent upon exclusively cellular or WiFi communications, it has built-in redundancy. Finally, an optional two-way radio call-for-help feature allows users to turn any of the Metis Secure devices into a direct line to a dispatcher at the campus police.

While the system was still being rolled out at press time, a full-fledged working system will be installed in the Mellon Institute by the end of this year. Down the road, Miller and her colleagues say they hope to create a consortium of regional universities with Metis Secure systems that can share best practices for emergency communication.