Getting the Word Out

At 11:30 a.m. on November 24th, 2008, Dylan Smith climbed into his car in downtown Syracuse, NY. Moments later another car slowed as it approached Smith’s car. Gunshots rang out. Smith clutched his neck, and slumped over. The shooter’s car sped away, turning down University Avenue toward the Syracuse University campus, just blocks away.

Minutes later, the Syracuse University Department of Public Safety sent a mass notification by e-mail, text message, and automated telephone calls instructing 27,600 students, faculty, and staff to seek shelter, lock doors and wait for instructions.

At 12:30 p.m. the alert was lifted, and campus life returned to normal. It was the first use of the Orange Alert, the name Syracuse has given to its mass notification platform.

Two months earlier on September 26, in Flagstaff, AZ, Northern Arizona University used its new mass notification system for the first time when a bank robber fled toward the University’s campus.

Across the country, colleges and universities are installing mass notification systems to inform their campus communities about emergencies, as well as more routine problems such as closings due to inclement weather. Systems run the gamut from easy-to-learn and use to sophisticated multi-tasking systems that require careful planning and training.

“The Virginia Tech tragedy highlighted the potential for an emergency to occur at any time,” said Alan Schuman, executive vice president of administration at Carroll Community College in Westminster, MD. “Our system provides a timely method of communicating with faculty, staff, and students.”

After evaluating several products, said Schuman, the college selected a system based on ease-of-use, reliability, and cost. The system came on line in September of 2007.

The new system “is a self-service, Web-based notification system that enables a non-technical administrator to communicate time-sensitive information to the entire campus community at once,” continued Schuman.

As a Web-based system, it requires no hardware or software. The system issues subscribers an ID and password. The subscriber invites the campus community to enroll. It is also possible to upload files containing names and contact information.

In an emergency, the public safety supervisor accesses the system’s Website and sends pre-constructed alerts. Computers, wireless PDAs, and cell phones located anywhere can tap into the Website and activate advisories. Recipients receive the messages by cell phone, telephone, PDA, and e-mail. The system will also send alerts to indoor and outdoor public address systems, fire alarm enunciators, blue-light emergency call boxes, display boards of all kinds, school Webpages, VoIP paging systems and display screens, and virtually any other kind of equipment able to receive electronic messages.

Important, too, the system enables administrators to set up groups and send different messages to different groups. During a bomb threat, for instance, the public safety director might want people in the threatened building and neighboring buildings to evacuate, while people in other buildings might be asked to shelter in place. Some messages might only affect students; others might only affect faculty in the English department.

Mass Notification Plus
The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (Penn) also evaluated several mass notification systems before selecting a new installation for their institution. Penn’s new system can create and send personalized notifications to thousands of students, parents, and teachers. It can also contact campus services, including facility management, maintenance, and campus security as well as police, fire, and medical emergency responders.

In addition, the system automates many routine tasks. It can receive sick calls from faculty, call groups of substitutes, and arrange to fill vacancies. It can notify maintenance of projects and locate maintenance people when high-priority issues arise. It can poll the University community in real time, inform students of closings, send out general announcements, and remind people of special events, registration deadlines, and overdue library items.

Penn’s system has a broad, wide reach. “Within 15 minutes by using SMS text messages and e-mail, we can reach 52,000 registered clients and provide information,” said Mitch Yanak, project director for UPenn Alert, Penn’s designation for the emergency notification system.

A particularly useful feature is two-way communication. Suppose a school receives a bomb threat against a residence hall. Campus security would launch a pre-constructed notification. Using student information stored in the database, the system sends evacuation information to students that live in the residence hall. The system also calls the police. More notifications station campus security officers around the perimeter of the building and dispatch other officers to check the rooms. Another notification warns faculty, staff, and students to avoid the area around the hall.

If necessary, the system communicates with public address systems, display boards, and other pieces of large, diverse communication systems.

Soon, responses from the student residents of the hall begin to arrive. The system prepares a list of names that haven’t been heard from. Security officers check those rooms first.

Suppose the threat were against a classroom building where professors have forced students to turn off their cell phones? E-mail messages will make it through to some students. The system can also send messages scrolling across the screens of University computers that might be in use in some classes.

But this points up the importance of training members of the community to tell others about emergencies. Even the most comprehensive system may not reach everyone.

Setting Up an RFP

If you are considering a notification system, Yanak advises developing a request for proposal (RFP) through discussions with stakeholders from the public safety department that will send the alerts and the students, faculty, staff, police, and other first responders that will receive alerts. Bring in representatives from the IT department as well. Figure out the best way for a notification system to contact each group.

At Penn, installation required extensive communication and coordination between Penn’s IT group and engineers from the vendor. Tasks included identifying data that the program needs and how it would be uploaded to the system.

As with any technical system, customizing Penn’s new mass communication system raised issues. “For us, difficulties occurred in determining the fastest method of sending an alert,” Yanak said. “For instance, the system sends SMS text messages to an aggregator, who then sends it to the cell-phone carriers. Some carriers deliver messages immediately, while others experience delays. How do providers in your area handle this? Are the messages delivered quickly enough?”

If this is an issue, continued Yanak, ask your vendor to show how messages, especially SMS text, appear in e-mail and paging devices.

Still another issue: telephones. “If the telephony ports provided by the vendor outnumber the your trunk lines, alerts sent to an internal phone system could cause the phone system to crash,” Yanak said.

“You should also check what mass notification vendor other universities in your area use,” Yanak added. “If another school uses the same system you are considering, conduct a test in which both schools send an alert at the same time, monitoring performance to make sure that heavy use doesn’t slow the system.”

Notification systems can be simple or complex depending on the risks facing a campus. Either way, planning remains essential. Who do you want to contact? How do you want to do it? Do you want an emergency system with some routine notification capabilities? Or an automated communication system offering a host of services?