Open Menu Close Menu

Emergency Notification

Get The Word Out

With a plethora of notification programs and feature sets available, the real challenges are which system to select and deciding how to enroll your campus community.

Get The Word OutNO ONE SHOULD BE SURPRISED that emergency notification has become a critical component of every higher education institution's overall emergency plan. Unfortunately, incidents across the country have galvanized campus safety officials to find more ways to notify their campus populations. Nearly everyone is familiar with the Virginia Tech shootings, but sadly that is only one of several similar incidents in the past few years, including a shooting at Northern Illinois University in February. Emergency notification systems can help get and keep students, faculty members, and staff out of harm's way.

Not only is it good common sense to have a notification system in place, today it also is the law. The federal Clery Act originally passed in 1990 and amended in 1992, 1998, and 2000 (previously known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act) includes a "timely warning" provision that requires campuses to alert the community about crimes that pose a serious or continuing threat to safety. For more information about the Clery Act, The Handbook for Campus Crime Reporting is available to download from the US Department of Education.

Watch the Triggers

Violent acts are not the only grounds for sending out an emergency alert. Others include severe weather, bomb threats, hazardous materials spills, gas leaks, and fires. Depending on your campus policies, additional triggering events might include power outages, road closures, missing persons, flooding, traffic accidents, train derailments, or severe disease outbreaks. In the event of a major snowfall, for example, your campus roadways may be clear, but parking lots may not have been plowed. The commuting population would want to know about this in advance.

Some institutions also will send messages about events that may be less immediately threatening but also important to the community, such as heating or cooling failures in buildings, food poisoning incidents, water shortages, and/or inmate escapes from nearby prisons. Today, most colleges and universities assess incidents carefully and do not indiscriminately send out a large number of alerts; to do so may cause recipients to ignore them or opt out of the notification system (the "cry wolf" syndrome).

System Capabilities

Get The Word Out

THE MORE AVENUES OF CONTACT you can provide, the more likely individuals on campus are to get the message. In August 2007, for instance, Wake Forest University (NC) installed a steam whistle on campus to alert the community to consult its other campus information systems for emergency information.

The good news is that there now are abundant options in emergency notification. Distinguishing features among offerings include: whether the system is maintained in-house or outsourced; the means used to contact campus community members; whether alerts can be targeted to specific groups; and whether the emergency notification system stands alone or is integrated with other campus systems.

In-house vs. outsourced. Institutions with large IT staffs are more likely to opt for a system that resides on campus because they have sufficient resources to implement it and provide ongoing support. The primary benefit of an inhouse system is the ability to directly link the notification system to existing records or directory systems, though this may require custom programming. In-house systems typically have a "live" link to one of those other databases so that contact data are always as current as the data in those systems.

Vendors that offer outsourced systems argue they can guarantee greater uptime, as their servers are housed in data centers that have multiple highbandwidth connections to the internet, redundant electrical power and cooling, and are well-secured. Many of these providers also offer 24/7 phone and online support (which your on-campus staffing situation may not allow for). You would want to verify all such claims as part of your due diligence in selecting a system.

If cell phones are routinely muted in classrooms, consider visual alert messages delivered via networked classroom projectors-- an effective method, since the alert message takes precedence over whatever is visible on the screen, rather like the television emergency warning system.

Targeted alerts. A number of notification systems (and especially those that have been around the longest) operate on an all-or-nothing basis: They will send an alert to every person subscribed to the system. This guarantees that everyone registered with the system receives the alert, and some feel this reduces the institution's liability. However, the trend is toward systems that allow campuses to create custom groups, so that alerts can be sent only to those affected. These targeted systems still permit a message to be sent to the entire list, but also offer administrators additional options. For example, if there were a power outage in just one faculty/staff office building, a message could be sent just to individuals with offices in that building.

Contact Methods

Clearly, the more avenues of contact you can provide, the more likely individuals on campus are to get the message. (A current buzzword in the technology industry is "multimodal": Firms selling notification systems define this as having multiple methods via which to contact your campus community members.)

Sirens and rudimentary alerts. Early types of notification systems included sirens or bells to indicate an emergency was imminent or in progress; examples still in use are tornado warning sirens and fire alarm systems. In some cases, schools are making use of these more basic alerts to push campus community members to other notification systems. In August 2007, for instance, Wake Forest University (NC) installed a steam whistle on campus to alert the community to consult its other campus information systems for emergency information. A whistle or siren is something nearly everyone understands and is a system for which campus members do not need to be registered or carry any sort of device. However, outdoor systems sometimes cannot be heard inside buildings, and the amount of information you can impart with such systems is very limited-- basically, just that something serious is occurring, and people need to take cover or exit a building or area quickly.

Cellular and landline phones. Today's technology, however, facilitates a much greater range of options with which to contact people and provide them with necessary and useful information. Most of us first think of phones (whether hardwired or cellular) as the best means of contact. In this day and age, higher education institutions no longer can depend on campus community members' homes being equipped with hardwired phones; thus contacting a combination of the two phone types provides greater likelihood of reaching most of the community. As we have learned by now, students are quite likely to communicate by text message and often prefer that mode of contact, but text messages generally are limited to 160 characters and some providers cap the number of simultaneous messages, so be sure to check with providers you intend to use for this method. Text messaging also is a good alternative for reaching people who are hearingimpaired, but it would require that they actually own cell phones. Campuses today still are not at 100 percent mobile phone ownership among faculty, staff, and students, even if they are getting close. And not all cell phone owners are subscribed to or use text messaging.

Classroom alert setups. What about notifying those in classrooms? Some instructors request that students silence their cell phones during class as a courtesy to all, in which case even a text message might not be noticed. In such instances, perhaps a vibrating feature can alert individuals, but there are additional alternatives: These include overhead speaker systems and visual alert messages delivered via classroom projectors. The latter requires the projector systems to be networked and centrally managed (see "Centralized Control," CT June 2008). This method can be very effective since the alert message takes precedence over whatever is visible on the screen at the time of the incident or event, rather like the television emergency warning system. (Another advantage of this notification method: It's not audible. If the urgent situation is caused by criminals or terrorists on campus, they would not be aware that a warning was being broadcast unless they were in one of the classrooms.) Hitachi, for one, advertises projector models with a proprietary "e-Shot" feature that provides this functionality. But campus television systems with local programming capabilities can be used to broadcast emergency messages, as well, and this communication method is yet another one employed by Wake Forest, among other institutions.

E-mail or 'pushed' computer messaging. Messages also can be pushed out to registered computers via e-mail or other specialized software packages, allowing instructors and students to view the alert while class is in session. When considering this option, however, be aware that e-mail may be ignored or running in the background, and thus it may be more beneficial to utilize a system that appears "on top of" whatever is displayed on the user's monitor. Such systems require that a small software package be downloaded to each user's computer. Two options in the desktop alerting arena are BIA Information Network's ActiveAccess and NetSupport Notify. ActiveAccess allows institutions to private-label the application. The George Washington University (DC), for instance, implemented this solution as GW Alert. The product resides as a small icon on the bottom right-hand corner of all users' computer desktops. Daily, it provides temperature and weather reports, and access to GW News and other news feeds. But when activated during a crisis, a text crawler runs at the bottom of computer screens, and a graphical alert provides additional instructions.

NetSupport Notify's latest version includes an option to add audible alerts, can be centrally managed via Microsoft's Active Directory policies, and can target alerts to selected departments. The NetSupport Notify package supports both Windows and Mac desktops, as well as Citrix clients.

The George Washington University's (DC) GW Alert resides as a small icon on the bottom right-hand corner of all users' computer desktops. Daily, it provides temperature and weather reports, and access to GW News and other news feeds. But when activated during a crisis, a text crawler runs at the bottom of computer screens, and a graphical alert provides additional instructions.

Speaker systems. To provide more specific and useful information about emergencies to those in outdoor venues, there are now speaker systems that provide truly intelligible voice quality-- no more straining to decipher words. An advantage of this type of notification is that messages in multiple languages can be broadcast, as well as tones/sirens. One example is ADT's Clear Warning system, which utilizes arrays of speakers attached to light poles or building structures. (For those who know a bit about sound and voice intelligibility, these new systems have a Common Intelligibility Scale [CIS] rating of .95 to 1.0.) The command-center-unit component of ADT's system can interface with video surveillance systems, as well.

IP phone alerts. If your campus has an IP telephone system, there are packages available to send alerts via the phones, both by ringing and by scrolling messages on the display. You also can add IP-based public address speakers to the system, to deliver messages throughout buildings. Brandeis University (NY), the University of Louisville (KY), and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System use the InformaCast system from CDW Berbee for just such paging.

Digital signage. Yet another alert vector ideal for message broadcasting is that of digital signage/bulletin boards. Some of these systems can be linked to other alerting systems, avoiding manual generation of an additional message, and providing yet another method of reaching the campus community. Again, when choosing a notification system, carefully consider a variety of methods to reach your community; most people would rather learn about an emergency from multiple sources, than not hear about it at all.

Standalone or Integrated?

Get The Word Out

BY CONSOLIDATING DATA from its SunGard Banner student information and Oracle PeopleSoft HR systems, as well as gathering student contact information during registration, Georgia State University hopes to enroll at least 75 percent of all personnel in its emergency notification system.

Standalone systems generally are quick to implement and often less expensive than systems that integrate with existing campus applications. The primary disadvantage of disparate systems is that contact information needs to be updated separately from other sources of current data, such as student information systems and human resources systems. Tying those databases directly to an emergency notification system can eliminate the need to make duplicative changes to individuals' contact information. Another option for integration is to connect the emergency notification system to the network directory system, e.g., Microsoft's Active Directory, Novell's eDirectory, or Apple's Open Directory. Assuming your directory system is already linked to your other data sources, this option is the easiest integration method to undertake, to ensure the data in the emergency notification system are up-to-date. Keep in mind this does not guarantee accuracy of the data, only currency. (Note that if your campus is among those that have implemented a federated identity management system, a standalone emergency notification system might violate established security policies.)

Another line of integration would be to the campus building security system. Some offerings allow building intrusion alarm systems to be tied into the alerting system such that building lockdowns can be triggered automatically.

Who's Using What?

WANT TO GET FIRST-PERSON FEEDBACK on today's emergency notification tech products? Check out the case studies in our story, and for more about which higher ed institutions are opting for various solutions, scan the listing below before you build your own short list.

  • The University of Alaska Anchorage has selected the 3n (National Notification Network InstaCom Campus Alert mass notification system.
  • US Air Force Academy (CO) technologists and administrators have opted for AtHoc IWSAlerts for use on campus at Maxwell Air Force Base. The product interfaces with public address systems, sirens, and phones, and sends desktop alerts to PCs and handheld devices; it also can send text messages.
  • The state of Louisiana has placed three alerting products on a state contract from which Louisiana colleges and universities can purchase. FirstCall Interactive Network, Omnilert's e2Campus product, and MIR3 inCampusAlert were selected. Each product is used by various colleges and universities throughout the US.
  • Santa Fe Community College (FL) has used its Alcatel-Lucent telephony network to notify the campus community about a man with a gun on campus. The system can deliver messages in seven ways.
  • Western Kentucky University has implemented the Avaya Communication Manager system, and is now reaching nearly 90 percent of the campus community.
  • The University of Notre Dame (IN) has selected Connect-Ed (recently purchased by Blackboard) for emergency communications via e-mail, voice, and text messages.
  • 17 Virginia community colleges, George Mason University (VA), UC-Santa Barbara, and the University of New Hampshire have deployed Cooper Notification's Roam Secure Alert Network (RSAN).
  • Butler University in Indianapolis is now using the Honeywell Building Solutions Instant Alert Plus service, which allows alert recipients to respond via a menu of options and provides call receipts to allow administrators to see if a call was sent and received.
  • The University of Tampa (FL) has selected ReadyAlert, which provides a base alert notification system and several available options such as text-to-voice conversion and e-mail attachments.

Getting the Word out-- in the Real World

GSU pilot bridges gaps. Mike Raderstorf, director of emergency management for Georgia State University (enrollment: 27,000), went through a solution selection process with an emergency management group of senior-level faculty and administrators. They worked through the process and made a decision quickly, based on multiple factors, not the least of which was that a vast majority of GSU students are commuters and the campus is in the heart of downtown Atlanta. GSU chose FirstResponder by Risk Mitigation Systems, and moved quickly to conduct a pilot. Raderstorf notes that one reason the university selected FirstResponder was that it formulated communications procedures around specific emergency action plans, and bridged the gap between communications and command & control.

GSU now has completed its pilot and will contract with Risk Mitigation Systems at a cost of approximately $1.50 per person, per year. GSU plans to develop a consolidated personnel registry using both its SunGard Banner student information and Oracle PeopleSoft HR systems, and then use the included automated upload feature to bring the data into FirstResponder. Student contact information will be gathered during registration. Using these techniques, GSU hopes to enroll at least 75 percent of all personnel in its emergency notification system. In terms of time to implement the system, Raderstorf notes the system was "immediately available" to create generic call groups and notification plans. But he adds that GSU wants to take advantage of the integration with emergency action plans, and so is beginning to import those, which will take additional time.

Quick implementation and lower cost. Rave Wireless is the emergency notification solution the University of Colorado at Boulder, Saint Michael's College of Vermont, and the University of Louisville have selected, following on the heels of Montclair State University (NJ), which was the first higher education institution to use the system. (Montclair State received an award from the nonprofit Security on Campus organization, for its innovative use of the solution, and was recognized as a 2007 Campus Technology Innovator in the Cellular/ Mobile category.) The Rave Wireless system can send messages via phone, e-mail, text, and RSS-- up to 9,000 texts and 8,000 calls per minute. On May 22, 2008, around 225,000 text messages went out to individuals in Colorado and Wyoming, warning about tornado activity in the region.

According to Malinda Miller-Huey, director of web communications at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the institution selected Rave Wireless for two primary reasons: quick implementation, and cost. Though Miller-Huey doesn't recommend it, UCB implemented the system in less than a month and completed the installation three days before classes started in August 2007. (Importantly, the Rave Wireless messaging system is part of an overall emergency communications plan that includes sirens, UCB's portal, e-mail, and a telephone information line.) UCB has an opt-in system and uses ads and e-mails to promote enrollment in the notification system. When students sign up for classes, they are prompted to verify or update their contact information-- a move that has led to a student enrollment rate of more than 90 percent. Unhappily, the university was the scene of a stabbing incident the very first day of school but, fortunately, Miller-Huey and her team had already discussed scripts for emergency message content and so were able to activate the system right away. UCB has written guidelines regarding who can approve and send out emergency messages; currently a dozen or so people on campus are trained and authorized to perform this function.

The University of Colorado at Boulder has an opt-in emergency notification system and uses ads and e-mails to promote participation. When students sign up for classes, they are prompted to verify or update their contact information-- a move that has led to a student enrollment rate of more than 90 percent.

Peter Soons, director of safety and security at Saint Michael's College (enrollment just under 2,000), chose Rave Wireless partly because the college preferred not to be wholly reliant on its own infrastructure. (The college's emergency notification system is part of an overall continuity plan, which also utilizes campus radio and TV stations, the campus website, and intercoms to communicate emergency information to its population.) The system took about two months to implement, which included making a decision about whether it would be mandatory or optin. Saint Michael's decided to register all of its students' phone and e-mail addresses. Once that was complete, students were invited to confirm their registrations and contact information. More than 80 percent did so, but regardless of whether they confirm, the campus sends emergency messages to all. Soons plans to upload contact information each fall to keep it current. Interestingly, the college is the primary emergency medical service (ambulance/rescue) provider for four nearby towns. It has set up a special distribution group within the Rave Wireless system to allow fire and rescue officers to send text messages to others within the group. Going forward, Saint Michael's plans to define more groups for "narrowcasts" that would go out just to those affected; for example, all students in one residence hall.

People, process, and tools for Louisville. As the assistant director of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety for the University of Louisville, Dennis Sullivan is responsible for the institution's emergency planning. Sullivan reports that when the university decided to implement a notification system, the IT department performed the initial research and presented a number of options to a committee comprised of Public Safety, Communications & Marketing, IT, and Student Life representatives. The system cost for the first year was $36,000 for up to 30,000 enrollees. Sullivan says he was disappointed in the early enrollment in the system (under 8,000 of 21,000 students) for the first year, so to get that figure up, this year's freshmen must twice elect to opt out of the system when enrolling for classes. And in May of this year, the university developed a set of guidelines for its alert system. The concise document describes nine modes of mass communications and clearly identifies the individuals authorized to approve emergency messages in various emergency scenarios. Among the nine methods described are the installation of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radios on every floor of every campus building, and a collaborative effort with the city of Louisville to post messages on digital displays along the area's interstate highways.

Part of the Bigger Picture

While we've focused solely on notification here, keep in mind that notification is only a single aspect of an overall campus security plan. In fact, even emergency notification itself is comprised of several components. For more on this, see August 2007's "7 Best Practices for Emergency Notification", which details many of those components. And for more on the big picture of campus security in 2008-2009, stay tuned to Campus Technology print and online.

U Texas San Antonio To Deploy Wireless Outdoor Emergency Notifications
Idaho State Simulates Emergency Response in Second Life

comments powered by Disqus