Emergency and Safety Communications

Recent events have brought campus safety and security to the forefront of the minds of administrators, students, and parents nationwide. The issue has become a mainstay and there is little to indicate where or when another incident will occur. As a result, many parents and prospective students have adjusted their selection criteria and placed security as a primary driver on their priority list when evaluating higher education institutions. Accordingly, this change has placed an additional responsibility on administrators as they strive to create a safe and secure learning environment.

Many forward-thinking colleges and universities are in the process of exploring how they will respond to this changing environment and how to establish best practices for creating a safety communications strategy. This means not only ensuring that there is an emergency communication plan in place to respond to events, but also a means to execute the strategy, both on a daily basis as well as when a specific incident occurs.

Communication Technology to the Rescue

A typical scenario of a campus safety crisis usually includes a person (or persons) at a school who presents a threat, such as a disgruntled student, employee, or random individual. The efficient delivery of critical information during this time is essential to ensure that others on campus remain safe and out of danger.

The advent of Internet Protocol (IP) Communications has opened up new possibilities for protecting students, faculty, and staff with sophisticated communication capabilities. This technology can utilize an existing Internet network to deliver powerful applications that can improve and complement a safety communication strategy.

Many colleges and universities have already instituted IP Communications networks for daily operations. According to a 2006 Computerworld survey of 134 educational institutions, 35 percent were either planning to implement or had already implemented IP telephony systems.

One application that is emerging as a legitimate option to support safety communications is known as an Emergency Alerting and Notification (EAN) solution. There are many variations of EAN, but the primary function is to deliver actionable information on a mass scale by establishing contact with communication devices to disseminate information. Some institutions already have simplistic systems in place that conduct mass calls to desktop phones, but this solution is limited in that it is not mobile. Other colleges have texting capability that can send messages via e-mail, personal digital assistant (PDA), and mobile phones.

While those strategies may seem adequate, the most thorough method is a“multimodal” approach, which simply means that virtually any device that receives communication can be contacted instantaneously with important information. These devices include cell and analog phones, e-mail, faxes, two-way radios, etc. This approach also can include simultaneously broadcasting the message over campuswide public address systems.

This solution ensures that no matter where people are or what they are doing, they can be contacted with information concerning something as important as an emergency event, or mundane, like weather-related closings. Multimodal systems, based on IP Communications, are the most efficient way to relay information to the largest amount of people in the shortest amount of time.

Strategy in Action

Responsible schools should have an emergency communication plan in place that is clearly understood by all personnel. This strategy not only allows for instant communication with others on campus, but also with first-responders and public safety officials. A primary component of this strategy should be an EAN system with multimodal capacity. With a sophisticated EAN such as this, each facility can be“united” as a single front to react to the unexpected, and ideally save lives and prevent injuries.

For example, a school can use IP Communications to outfit each lecture hall or classroom with an advanced phone system. This solution is made even more efficient if there is a pre-existing IP phone network. By complementing the IP system with advanced application services such as an EAN, another layer of security is created to execute a safety communication strategy.

A sophisticated EAN system can identify and locate any 911 call that is made anywhere on campus. Upon the alert, campus security and administrators can be automatically notified. Local public safety authorities also can be contacted. The information shared could include important details, such as the physical location of where the 911 call originated, the extension from where it was made, and any insight regarding the incident. This system pinpoints the crisis and facilitates a more coordinated effort among campus security and civilian public safety providers to greatly improve response time to emergencies.

Diversification is Key

While there are a variety of EAN systems available, some are shortsighted. Specifically, those that focus solely on text or e-mail functionality are severely limited. In addition, e-mail, although reliable for non-emergency communications, is not a viable solution when lives depend on timely and accurate alerting and notification. Educators and administrators, as well as emergency personnel, must be able to communicate effectively with students, staff, and others in an efficient timeframe. Authorities must be able to alert and communicate with people in classrooms, offices, hallways, cafeterias, libraries, and even on the campus grounds.

An IP-based safety communications strategy that addresses the multimodal aspect should be a key driver when exploring EAN solutions. While traditional communication systems can conduct mass phone calls and emails to achieve EAN, they are restrictive. In fact, before IP Communications, the only effective means for delivering of actionable information was through these antiquated networks. IP Communications with multimodal capacity can serve as the “glue” between various communications devices to facilitate seamless mass communication.

Delivering IP

IP Communications and its associated application services can be delivered in a variety of ways. The traditional usage has been through a customer premise equipment (CPE) model, which involves the physical integration of technology and infrastructure at each facility. This solution can be a very large capital expenditure and requires a lengthy installation process, and while it may not present a challenge or roadblock for large universities, smaller schools may not be able to afford the necessary investment.

To address these challenges, an emerging alternative of delivering these services in an expedited and more economical scale is through the use of a “hosted” model. This means that a college can centralize its IP services and distribute them throughout each facility. A hosted model is a legitimate option that can allow for solutions such as EAN to be available on a more reasonable financial model in a shorter timeframe, thereby providing more schools with the capability to utilize this technology.

The Future

With the rise of IP Communications, administrators now have access to more options for providing a safe and secure environment. IP-based technology has become the core technology needed to deliver the next generation of security and communication systems, and it is critical that decision makers realize the capabilities of these advanced technologies to make thoughtful decisions regarding a safety communications strategy.

As innovation continues, additional EAN-like applications will emerge and those institutions that have considered IP Communications as a high priority will be in a better position to enjoy the benefits that these solutions can provide. The technology is here now and will only improve. As a result, colleges and universities can create safer places for students to learn and flourish.

Greg Royal is the founder and chief technology officer of Cistera Networks (www.cistera.com), a provider of enterprise application platforms and engines for IP Communications.