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The Many Modes of Emergency Notification at Western Kentucky U

There was no better test of Western Kentucky University's emergency notification system than the events that happened on Oct. 22, 2008, when 911 dispatchers received a mid-day cell phone call of shots being fired and sightings of gunmen on the Bowling Green university's community college campus.

Within minutes state and city police were dispatched, and the campus' own police force was notified. Law enforcement officers began evacuating a building, and, shortly after, a text message went out to the campus community telling them that armed men had been reported on a satellite campus and to stay clear of the area. A few minutes later an e-mail message went out saying there had been an incident on campus involving guns. Within half an hour of the first text message, a new threat was reported on the main campus, and a second text message was sent, this time letting students know to stay away from the Pearce Ford Tower, a campus landmark. An outside warning system made a similar announcement and told students to seek shelter. Two and a half hours later, at 3:02 p.m., a third text message went out giving the all clear, letting people know it was okay to leave their buildings.

Edwin Craft, director of telecom and interactive video services for WKU and a participant in the school's campus crisis communication committee, said response was immediate. "I was standing in front of glass window when the second text message went out and sirens on the main campus went off. I was pleased with the way that students responded to both. They didn't run over people. It wasn't mass panic. But they proceeded to the closest building in a very fast manner."

As it turns out, the scare on campus that day didn't appear to have actually involved guns. But the question arises: Could the output from emergency systems that make notifications as easy to generate as a bulk e-mail lull the campus community into a sense of inattention and thereby prevent them from acting on future alerts?

Dealing with Weak Links
Prior to the massacre at Virginia Tech in April 2007, WKU, which had already been working on its crisis communication plan, had concluded that it needed multiple ways to reach students and others in the event of an emergency. "From the beginning we knew we wanted to use as many methods [of communication] as technology would allow us to," said Craft. "Each method has its own inherent difficulties or, just because of the technology, could be down depending on the crisis."

For example, a plan that relied totally on voice messages via cell phones could be brought down by sheer volume. "Within 30 minutes after a crisis," he pointed out, "We knew we were going to be completely jammed."

Text messaging might work even when voice communication ceased, but there was a question about how long it would take for messages to arrive. "Most messages take from zero to 30 minutes to go out," said Craft. "If there's an active shooter on campus, 30 minutes is a long time."

To ensure redundancy, what the university deployed about a year ago encompasses several systems: voice messages, text messages, e-mail, and audible warnings.

A Federal Signal outdoor warning system with three speakers can be heard across the entire 200-acre main campus. "We chose three instead of one [because] one of those could fail or the building that uses that speaker could be on fire," explained Craft.

But the campus received feedback that the outdoor warnings couldn't be heard indoors. So the crisis planning team is looking into implementing an indoor warning system tied into the fire alarm systems, which provide for voice broadcasting, from SimplexGrinnell and Siemens. That would be attached to the exterior system so that the same message could be played inside and outside at the same time.

To handle automated voice communication to cell phones and land lines during an emergency, the university uses Communicator NXT from Dialogic Communications Corp. (DCC), which it calls the Emergency Notification Service.

The Text Messaging Test
About the same time as the other systems were put in place, WKU deployed its text messaging system using a service from Rave Wireless. Rave was chosen, Craft said, for several reasons: It had the ability to send out short message peer-to-peer protocol (SMPP) texts; its service could meet the 30-minute timeframe WKU specified for delivery of a text message; the company had a track record of working with colleges and universities; and it already had in place agreements with text messaging aggregators to get those messages through the carriers without delay.

As Raju Rishi, Rave's co-founder and chief strategy officer, explained, an aggregator such as VeriSign or Sybase acts as the liaison between the message sender and the cell phone company. "Once you create voice mail or a text message and you push it into the network, that's sent to the aggregator. If you've got one aggregator parceling out the message to all the different carriers and that aggregator is down or not functioning properly, then those messages won't go out. That's why we've got four aggregator relationships."

Within a week of WKU's implementation of Rave, the university had its first use--a weather warning about a campus closure following a snowstorm.

Currently, the system includes cell phone numbers for about 15,000 users in a campus community of more than 21,000 students, faculty, and staff. That's a high number of participants compared to other higher education institutions, according to Rishi.

To ensure getting the maximum number of students to subscribe, said Craft, the school prompts students to enter their information each semester when they register online for classes. During the registration process, they're asked whether they want to enter a cell phone number to be able to receive text message alerts. That information lands in a SunGard Higher Education Banner system and output to a comma-delimited file, which is bulk-uploaded to Rave.

Unlike other campuses, WKU has chosen not to open the text messaging system up to parents. "In the event of a crisis, we figure it's important to get messages out to people who are in imminent danger first," Craft said. "If we bog our system down with parents for every student that we have on campus, we think it would delay the message more than 30 minutes."

The school has implemented a secondary system to notify parents by e-mail. "After we have a good grasp on the situation and can get information out to parents that their kids are safe or we want them to pick up their student, then we'll send that via e-mail," he said.

False Alarms
Craft said he isn't concerned about the prospect of students ignoring future alerts. "We've used Rave system for emergency purposes four times now," he said. "Three of those were for bad weather. The latest was because of possible weapons on campus. And during that last incident, we used it three times."

That ratio is important, said Rave's Rishi. "If you have one incident happening per year at a campus which is a false alarm, that's not very often.... People are using this for power failures, for snow emergencies, hurricane alerts, tornado warnings, outages in terms of computer [access]. I think that's information that's relevant, and there are no false alarms associated with them."

The school had also made a promise to its community: that once a semester it would send a test message to phones but that otherwise, Rave would strictly be used only in the event of an emergency.

In fact, Craft said he sees an indirect benefit to the false alarm. "Since our event turned out to be not as bad as it could have been, there were a lot of things we learned that we can apply if we ever do have a crisis on campus."

The fact that the first and second texts were broadcast within 30 minutes tested how well the system would hold up when multiple messages were sent in quick succession. "We had tested one message," said Craft, "but never two, three, or four." As it was, fewer than 10 people reported delays in receipt of that second warning.

"Overwhelmingly, our use of the system was well received," he reported.

The Phone Rules
Rave is just one component of the emergency setup at WKU. The DCC server actually rules. Eventually, said Craft, that Emergency Notification Server will act as a central point to activate all other systems. "We haven't got all the interfaces up and operational, but we're moving in that direction." That goal: to limit the amount of time it takes to have all notification systems triggered.

WKU chose the combined DCC server and its phone system, which is from Avaya, as its core communication vehicle, he said, because the duo are almost impervious to outside vulnerabilities. Besides having generator and battery backup to the 6,500 phones on campus, DCC itself has a backup system that's hosted and that maintains a mirrored image of WKU's system.

"In the event of a crisis, we knew that outside telephone calls--both in and out--were going to be somewhat limited. We knew that cell phone towers were going to be jammed. Any system outside the campus trying to call back inside was going to face the possibility of the phone calls being blocked. If we're not able to communicate with the outside world, then we can still maintain the capability of triggering some of our systems."

But should it fail, the campus can reach out to the offsite system, which is located in three different places around the country, according to Craft, "and those would be able to distribute the information out to whatever systems we're tied into."

Having a plan B at hand is the crucial driver of the plan. "In your table top exercises, you have to take key aspects out that you'd normally depend on," advised Craft. "How would you function if this system didn't work? If you have an active shooter on campus, what happens if this person can't communicate with that person?... You have to have redundancies in your technologies and your people."

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