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Higher Ed Tests Emergency System for Immediacy

Higher education institutions across the country are trying out an emergency alert system that, according to the company that created it, is dramatically faster for reaching the campus community than traditional notification services. IntelliGuard Systems has had long-term tests running in six schools, including the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and Providence College in Rhode Island.

The IntelliGuard product line, RavenAlert, promises to deliver simultaneous messages in less than 20 seconds and eliminate the bottleneck that occurs when a huge volume of alerts goes out by standard traditional channels such as texting, phone messages, and e-mails. The approach relies on a private wireless messaging network that delivers notifications through a line of devices, including a wall unit, a dedicated keychain, and a 53-inch LED display.

"Cellular networks are fine for day-to-day communications, but during a life-threatening event when you must alert thousands of people simultaneously, SMS/text messaging does not work," explained Dave Andersen, the company's president and chief operating officer. "That's why we created a dedicated network that delivers both speed and control over emergency communications so that schools can simultaneously notify all students of an emergency immediately and then communicate ongoing developments as they occur."

According to the company, RavenAlert uses a dedicated channel for the network of transmitters that provides radio frequency signals on campus, amplifiers to enhance those signals, software to encode the broadcast messages, dispatch software, and as many wall units as required to provide complete campus coverage. Those units can be mounted to a wall or set on a surface. When an emergency message is dispatched, the red lights flash, and a loud tone sounds. A backlit LED screen displays a text message that gets converted to speech to communicate the nature of the emergency and instructions for viewers and listeners.

For individual alerts the company sells an always-on keychain that includes an audible alarm and a text message. Those average about $20 to $30 per student. The cost is included in the price paid by the institution for the entire system, which the company suggested could be funded by a student fee.

Providence College, which uses Blackboard's Connect (formerly Connect-ED), began its test of RavenAlert in May 2010 to overcome the problem of delayed messages "Our existing layered emergency alert system relies on SMS/text and e-mail, which are adequate when time isn't a critical factor," said Koren Kanadanian, director of emergency management. "But when I have to send multiple messages of instruction during an emergency, I have no control over what the cell carriers do. Plus once an initial emergency alert is sent, the students immediately call their parents to let them know what's happening, which only clogs the network further, adding to the delay of message delivery. With IntelliGuard, I know that everyone will get every message that's sent out at the same time in seconds."

USC, which uses Cooper Notification technology in a branded service named TrojansAlert, began its trial of the RavenAlert devices in July 2010. "In tests we conducted of the IntelliGuard solution on campus, we were able to verify simultaneous receipt of an emergency message in less than 15 seconds. That type of performance would make IntelliGuard a valuable addition to our existing emergency response capability," said Carey Drayton, executive director and chief of Public Safety. "This is crucial because when an emergency occurs on campus, our most important concerns are determining what happened, formulating the right message to communicate, and then getting that info delivered to our community of students and staff as quickly as possible to keep everyone out of harm's way."

Other schools trying out RavenAlert include Bentley University in Waltham, MA; Drexel University in Philadelphia; Stetson University in DeLand, FL; and Texas Southern University in Houston.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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