2009 Campus Technology Innovators: Emergency Notification
- By Mary Grush, Matt Villano
Innovator: Carnegie Mellon University
CMU implemented a location-based warning system
that delivers emergency alerts to classrooms, labs,
even basements across campus-- 50 times faster than
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
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.
Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.
Matt Villano is senior contributing editor of this publication.