"This is Not a Drill!"

No matter how much you prepare, emergencies happen. How people plan for and respond to emergencies makes the difference between a contained event and an uncontained disaster.

In the aftermath of recent emergency situations — including tragic university shootings, weather-related disasters, and other crises — college administrators and emergency managers began turning toward network-centric emergency notification systems to help protect the people, property, and infrastructure that make up their communities. Colleges and universities must prepare for that unpredictable emergency they hope will never happen. So they plan and practice.

And then, it happens; the critical trial of an effective emergency alerting system comes, and campus officials depend on their system to work, flawlessly. This was the scenario played out recently for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Shake, Rattle, and Roll Out the Emergency Alerts

An important test of the UCLA network-centric alert system occurred on July 29, 2008. That is when a 5.4 magnitude earthquake suddenly shook the Los Angeles area.

Within minutes of the event, UCLA emergency managers successfully triggered their “BruinAlert” mass notification system to notify its campus population of the earthquake. The first emergency alerts were sent via the BruinAlert system to more than 48,000 individuals, who received a combination of desktop pop-up alerts, e-mails, and SMS (short message service) text messages. Students were informed that an earthquake took place and were warned about the possibility of aftershocks following the main quake. They were also directed to tune into the campus AM radio station for additional instructions.

With a single click of the mouse by a UCLA emergency management official, thousands of people were alerted within minutes via multiple communication channels and devices.

The earthquake scenario marks the first real-world emergency use of the campus’ network-centric emergency alerting system since it was deployed in November of 2007. With a reach of more than 97 percent of the campus population, the system successfully notified individuals within minutes. UCLA officials reported that there were no injuries and no major damage as a result of the quake. The earthquake response demonstrated the value that network-centric emergency alerting can play in quickly targeting and reaching a large, distributed population via multiple communication channels — from a single console.

Reliable, Rapid, and Pervasive
Like all colleges and universities, UCLA faces the difficult challenge of protecting thousands of college students, faculty, and staff who live, work, learn, and play across its sprawling campus. The UCLA campus encompasses 174 buildings across 419 acres. In addition to the approximately 40,000 students at the University, there are more than 4,000 faculty members.

UCLA takes a highly proactive approach to risk mitigation and emergency response. To safeguard those on campus, UCLA employs a highly trained security team and embraces technology as part of a multi-layered system of crisis response and mitigation.

To complement the University’s multiple mass notification solutions, UCLA required a reliable network-based emergency alerting system capable of reaching its campus population wherever they are located. The system needed to contact students and staff through computers and mobile devices quickly with important emergency information.

The requirements for UCLA’s emergency notification system needed to incorporate a system able to handle the enormous complexity involved in managing user contact data and ensuring fast and reliable emergency notifications through a host of communication channels and devices. At the top of UCLA’s requirements for an emergency alerting system were:
  • Centralized and redundant multi-channel alerting
  • Scalability
  • Rapid alert dissemination
  • Accurate and up-to-date contact information

Network-Centric Alerting to the Rescue
In researching systems for emergency notification, UCLA looked beyond traditional campus alerting solutions and reviewed how some of the most security-minded organizations in the world handled emergency alerting. They looked at case studies from the Department of Defense and the systems used to protect personnel in some of the highest threat environments in the world.

UCLA evaluated numerous offerings and determined a campus-wide emergency notification system that uses readily available Internet Protocol (IP)-based technology best suited its needs. Once a system was chosen and deployed on-site, UCLA branded the system as “BruinAlert” in honor of the school’s mascot, a bruin (bear).

BruinAlert protects the UCLA community by quickly sending alerts to students and staff through multiple, redundant channels. Alerts are sent via a Web-based application to devices such as mobile and landline telephones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other mobile communications devices, sirens, computer desktops, television, radio, and the Emergency Digital Information System (EDIS). The system also incorporates an off-site automatic failover capability, assuring access to the alerting system, even in case of severe campus emergencies.

UCLA’s emergency notification system enables officials to rapidly reach all individuals from a single console. As many as 15,000 online users will be notified via desktop alerts, and as many as 45,000 users will be notified via SMS text messages. The alerting system also leverages existing public address communications infrastructure.

Using a standard network-connected Web browser, UCLA emergency operators can create, manage, and send alerts to any computer or device. This vital capability gives emergency notification teams the ability to use alternate locations and workstations as a fail-safe method, should the operations center become inoperable.

To ensure only authorized personnel can launch alerts, the UCLA system incorporates a secure permissions management system that grants access only to those users with authorized account and password information. Depending on the situation, the University emergency operators can select from predefined alerts or create a custom alert.

The Weakest Link
Any emergency alerting system is only as good as the accuracy of the information contained in its contact database. With a highly transient community, the ongoing management of personnel contact information is a critical part of UCLA’s notification system. Large organizations such as UCLA typically have numerous repositories that house this contact information

BruinAlert contains a unique software module that integrates with multiple UCLA user repositories to import user contact details and distribution lists. This module retrieves and synchronizes personnel contact information such as office and home telephone numbers, mobile numbers, e-mail addresses, locations, and groups from multiple enterprise repositories to ensure accurate contact details are available for emergency notification.

When Seconds Count
The July earthquake dramatically demonstrated for UCLA the value of a unified, network-centric mass notification system for rapidly reaching large and dispersed populations on college campuses. Alerting thousands of individuals quickly about a crisis and delivering clear instructions for action ensures an effective and safe response.

As stated at the outset, emergencies happen. Being prepared and having an automated system in place before they happen is essential. As the saying goes, it is far better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Simon Berman is responsible for all aspects of corporate and product marketing for AtHoc (www.AtHoc.com), where he oversees the strategic planning and execution of new market penetration and product delivery.