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University officials have spoken frankly to webinar attendees about the challenge of mass notification. Which modalities and strategies are for them-- or for you?

Now more than ever, campus safety is of paramount importance. A reliable emergency mass notification system is one way to ensure the safety of constituents, and Brandeis University (MA) recently invested in a system that does the job. During the May 20, 2008, CT webinar "Campuswide Mass Notification: Real-World Keys and Best Practices," John Turner, the school's director of networks and systems, spoke with CT Senior Contributing Editor Matt Villano about Brandeis' system. The webinar, sponsored by CDW Berbee, highlighted a number of steps to consider when building an emergency alert system. Here are some excerpts. (View the complete archived webinar on demand here.)

Alert!CT: Give us a general overview of the user base at Brandeis.
Turner: We are in Waltham, MA, just a little bit outside of Boston. We have about 100 buildings on campus. During the day, there are anywhere between 5,000 to 7,000 folks on our 235-acre campus. There are 2,700 resident students on campus. They live in the dorms here and they all have VoIP speakerphones from Cisco in their dorm rooms. That's one unique aspect about Brandeis.

What prompted you to rethink your approach to mass notification?
Like most schools [see "Another Spin"], I'd say it was the shooting incidents at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University. After those tragedies, we created a task force composed of a number of offices around campus: campus police, the president's office, campus services, human resources, IT, and more. As a group, the first thing we did was take stock of what kind of emergency mass notification systems are available today. We knew that we needed to hit all the major components. Everyone liked SMS but, surprisingly, we don't have the greatest cell phone coverage, so that was an issue that we needed to address. Another piece that stood out was a university-wide paging system or a public address system. We had an edict, really: 90 days to get a notification system up and running. The task force wanted to hit as many constituents as possible, and we put together a plan that included a number of things: SMS messaging to students, reverse 911 calls out, e-mail, giant sirens around campus, and a paging system.

Once this plan was in place, what did you do?
We conducted a survey of systems. We are a Cisco VoIP shop, and we use Cisco CallManager, so one of the mass notification tools that we knew that we could use with the system was the InformaCast system from CDW Berbee. There were other vendors out there, too: Citrix, NetSupport, and others. But we went with Berbee.

What was early implementation like?
What we needed to do with the early action system was to predefine some messages and figure out what kinds of messages we were going to send. This was probably one of the more difficult aspects of the process. The offices of Communications and Public Safety wanted to make sure that the messages were concise, that they were informative, and that they covered all situations. And I was sitting here thinking, "It's all about the technology." So we struggled back and forth, hitting our heads against the wall and trying to make them understand what they needed to do. Finally, I said, "Look, just think of it like a fire alarm." That worked. A fire alarm has a single message. A fire alarm doesn't tell you a lot about what is going on. Fire alarms say one thing: "Get out!" We needed to think of our campus emergency system in the same way. Now we obviously needed different messages, but the key here was to come up with a succinct amount of messages. And that's what we did.

Another Spin

BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY (MA) isn't the only school grappling with emergency notification; the University of Notre Dame (IN) is, too. On July 22, 2008, in the Campus Technology webinar "Text Messaging as an Emergency Communication Superstar?" Dewitt Latimer, Notre Dame's deputy CIO and chief technology officer, talked about his experiences. Following are excerpts from that discussion, sponsored by Blackboard Connect. (View the complete archived webinar on demand here.)

CT: What prompted Notre Dame to rethink its approach to emergency notification?
Latimer: Within the higher education community, it was really the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois incidents that hit home. A lot of schools had wildfires to deal with, and hurricanes, too.

What is the benefit of multimodal communication?
It doesn't take much to look around and see all of the students with their heads bent over their cell phones-- busily tapping away at text messages and whatnot-- for the text messaging to rise to the top. SMS is a natural choice, but you should send out emergency messages across other media such as e-mail and telephone, as well.

In general, what needs to happen in order for emergency notification to work?
You need close to 100 percent enrollment and participation rates. Enrollment rate is the number of students or amount of information that you have loaded into your emergency notification system. Participation rate is the number of those enrollees who successfully negotiated the handshake to receive SMS messaging or even e-mail and voicemail.

What are some of the biggest challenges?
Things like the credibility of the message. Quite frankly, in 2005 the state of Connecticut had a little mishap with its emergency alert system. In this case, it was the traditional TV Emergency Alert System where they distributed across all state agencies, all radios, and whatnot, the following message: "Civil authorities have issued an immediate evacuation order for all of Connecticut, beginning at 2:10 and ending at 3:10." Connecticut is small, but evacuating a state in an hour is a pretty good trick. Nearly half of the people who heard the message didn't believe it.

So how do you get people to embrace emergency notification?
One way you can do it is to start building a brand around your emergency notification system. At Notre Dame, we have created ND Alert as the brand.We're also educating our user community to look for multiple forms of communications in that if you don't spot at least two of them, then question seriously what you're hearing and seeing.

What's the bottom line?
No single solution should be the centerpiece of your emergency notification plan. You must bring to bear all of the modalities that you can get your hands on. And you must teach your user communities, your students, to look, listen, recognize, and understand those modalities and what they can and can't do for you.

Did you do these messages yourselves?
We didn't have to. Berbee preloaded messages, as well as our SMS and our e-mail system. These can be used for all the major threats.

How did you decide who would operate the notification system?
That was a tough one; it took a little bit of time for our Communications office and the administration to work out who was going to pull the trigger. Traditionally on campus, all of our major communication efforts are headed up by our Communications office. But that really wasn't the right thing in this case, and it took us a little while to work out with the campus police that they needed to be the ones to take charge. Our thinking was that they are the ones who are going to get the first notification of an event on campus, so they are the ones who should pull the alarm, push the button, and send the alarm out fastest. We also wrote a single sign-on program through which campus police can log in to other associated notification systems and push emergency messages from those, too.

Technologically speaking, how does the IP system work?
It is a server-based system, connected to all of our IP phones. In the event of an emergency, we choose the precomposed message that we want to send, and the system pushes audio and text versions of the message out to every phone simultaneously. It does it as a multicast, which is a technology that essentially decreases the amount of bandwidth you need. Think of it as a streaming service; the multicast is a 128-kilobyte stream. Basically, all of the phones connect to this stream. The stream goes to broadcast points, and spiders out. That's a good thing, because we don't want to congest our network and find ourselves in a situation where if users were to pick up all 4,000 or 5,000 handsets at the same time, they wouldn't get any dial tone.

Does your IP notification system consist only of phones?
We have IP speakers, too. In areas where we don't have IP phones, we still need to broadcast our messages. These would be areas like laundry rooms, auditoriums, and atriums. For this, we worked with a company called Atlas Sound, which makes IP speakers. The speakers look like your elementary school PA system that sat on the wall: a classic speaker-in-a-box setup. The difference is that these are IP, so you literally plug an Ethernet jack into the back of it and hang it on the wall. In our case, the devices receive power over the Ethernet. Right now we have about 20 additional speakers on campus and an eye toward increasing that as we continue to identify areas where we may need better coverage.

So you've got phones and speakers. What other hardware is involved?
We need an InformaCast server and, in our case, that server is a low-end Dell. Installation on that was quick-- we downloaded the Berbee software, got a test license, and set it up. That was it.

Has this system replaced the fire alarm?
No, the fire alarm is not tied into this particular system. Local municipalities require separate fire alarms and require them to meet certain standards. Our IP notification system is separate.

Tell us more about the messages themselves. What do they say?
We took a lot of input from other institutions on this one, as well as from our own Communications office, and developed a series of short messages. The messages are things like "Shelter in place," which is a standardized message that basically says, "Stay where you are," or "Do not go outside." That message is intended for potential weather emergencies, shooters, some sort of biological release, a potential bomb threat, and things like that. Other messages tell our people to evacuate their current locations and proceed to designated evacuation zones. Prior to the incident at Virginia Tech, we had established locations on campus to evacuate folks to, if there was an emergency on campus. We divided the campus up into five zones. Every building is in a particular zone. If you are in a building and you have the evacuate notice, you go to that designated evacuation location.

That's it?
No, there are others. One says, "Campus is closed," which basically tells people, "Please do not come to campus," and that if they are en route, they should turn back. Additional messages convey things like snow emergencies, classes cancelled, test messages, and things like that.

What kind of redundancy did you build in?
InformaCast supports a redundant system online. It's easy for them to have it set up and get that going. So that was kind of a no-brainer. It just works. The phone system itself has multiple points of redundancy, as well: If we were to lose a major machine room, we have call-processing centers distributed in five locations throughout campus. The SMS and other providers all assure us, through written statements and whatever else, that they have redundant facilities and can provide a level of assuredness there.

How did you calculate return on investment and what, in your opinion, has delivered the greatest ROI?
ROI is always a difficult one to calculate; we often don't look at soft costs. Things like that can tend to be difficult to calculate. However, in this particular case, the ROI was that InformaCast was cheaper than what it would have cost us if we wanted to do a PA system. I can confidently say it would have been at least in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wiring alone in these locations is costly: We would have had to put in messaging cable, and would have had to install somewhere near 800 speakers. It would have been very expensive. So that was pretty much immediate ROI. For us, the other ROI comes with the intangible aspects of safety. What price do you put on a notification system? What price do you put on notifying the campus of a mass emergency? For us, that is priceless.

"Traditionally, our major communication efforts are headed up by our Communications office. It took us a while to work out that the campus police needed to take charge; they are the ones to get the first notification of an event on campus."

One year into the new system, how many times have you had to use it?
We have definitely used it for weather closures. We had a pretty massive snow storm heading toward Brandeis that the weather forecasters had not predicted well. We needed to get the message out as quickly as possible: "School is closed." Traditionally, that would have been done via all-campus voicemail and e-mail. In this case, we were able to use the InformaCast system, and folks were off campus within the hour. We also test the system regularly. When you install a system like this, you need to make sure that there are no problems that crop up. We all know that our networks change; that people move offices, forget passwords, and forget where they put the operations manual. For all of these reasons, we need to make sure that things are tested regularly. The other aspect of testing is sort of a political buy-in piece to let people know that we have the system and that it works. That builds confidence. When we installed it, we initially tested it in the summer. You could hear the sirens throughout campus. We've also tested the cell-phone component and it's nice to see SMS messages going through. Our intention is to test it every semester and during the summer. The testing is a crucial piece; I can't stress enough that it is something that needs to be coordinated in order to succeed.

:: RelatedLinks ::
Developing the Right Alert Notification Strategy
NetSupport Debuts Desktop Mass Notification System
Notre Dame (IN) Speeds Launch of Crisis Notification System

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