Maj. Jay Gruber of the University of Maryland knows it’s essential to have an effective method of notifying people on campus in case of an emergency.
Aug 20 2007

Get The Word Out

Campuses enhance their mass notification systems so they can communicate in a flash.
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We live in an age when news travels fast. With cell phones, text messaging, e-mail and Web sites existing side by side with land-line telephones, television and radio, news goes around the world in minutes.

Increasingly, higher education institutions are working to ensure that on-campus news travels even faster. One fast-growing trend on campus is installing systems that provide a way to reach everybody within seconds. These mass notification systems let administrators reach students, faculty and staff on campus to notify them of an emergency, or alert those off campus to stay away.

Many institutions have been looking for better ways to reach students, faculty and staff. And institutions around the country have implemented systems that can send alerts in one or perhaps a handful of ways. But achieving the true goal of mass notification requires a system that coordinates messages across all the common types of communication.

For instance, e-mail may not reach people on time because it can take a few hours for servers to process and send so many e-mails. Text messaging systems that aren’t designed for emergencies can also take a few hours to process mass mailings. Besides ways of reaching people on their personal devices, methods such as sirens, loudspeakers and large digital displays can also attract attention.

“There is no ‘one size fits all,’” says Larry Conrad, associate vice president and CIO at Florida State. “There’s a suite of things you need to do, and you really need to do them all.”

Conrad and other information technology chiefs have long known that an effective mass notification strategy requires a multitiered approach using centralized systems to communicate via different channels to multiple populations.

Larry Conrad, CIO at Florida State, takes a multitier approach to mass notification.

Connecting the Dots

As most schools, Florida State has long had mechanisms in place to communicate with its 40,000 students. But they were piecemeal and not sufficient in an emergency. Over the last few months, Florida State has been enhancing the systems it already has and implementing new ones. Conrad and his team set up methods of reaching people on campus via e-mail, Web sites, cell phones, text messages and loudspeakers.

The school set up a metered e-mail system that can feed 1,000 messages at a time so the system won’t get clogged; it put up a Web site in April to collect students’ mobile phone numbers (it gathered 20,000 — half of the student body — in less than a week); and it’s been working to expand its text messaging system to handle emergencies.

“That’s suitable for people off campus, but for the people who are in the buildings and are in harm’s way, that’s not going to do it,” Conrad says.

With funding from the Department of Homeland Security, Florida State began to install 100-decibel speakers on campus this spring. They can broadcast text-to-voice messages or blast sirens.

It’s also researching Internet protocol-based loudspeakers to put inside buildings. Conrad would like to connect them to the outside speakers so messages could be distributed through both systems with one step.

Besides reaching everybody on campus, mass notification systems have to work quickly.

When Conrad attended a spring meeting of IT leaders from different universities, one CIO admitted that a test message sent over the institution’s new mass notification system took four hours to be approved for public dissemination.

“If it’s really going to work, you’re going to have to do some up-front work,” Conrad says. He suggests pulling together legal, communication, administrative and public safety personnel to develop canned messages that can be distributed instantly.

Prepare for the Worst

Maj. Jay Gruber, assistant chief of police and assistant director of public safety at the University of Maryland, says notification systems have been on his radar for close to six years. In late September 2001, a tornado ripped through campus, killing two students and injuring several others.

“It was a watershed year for us,” Gruber says. “We realized that as an institution, we didn’t have a way to notify people of an impending emergency.”

That made implementing emergency notification systems on campus a hot issue. Soon, other priorities took over but not before University of Maryland Public Safety subscribed to a service called WeatherData. The service forecasts weather, and when forecasts meet certain criteria, WeatherData sounds a siren and sends fax and telephone notifications to the school’s emergency communications center. A computer in the center manages the system. If the computer isn’t available, a manual console can be deployed, Gruber says.

This spring, the University of Maryland enhanced its mass notification arsenal by implementing the Roam Secure Alert Network (RSAN) text messaging system. Students and faculty can opt into the system through a Web site ( or by mobile phone (send text message “UMD” to 411911).

Gruber liked Roam Secure’s product because he could buy it outright instead of paying an annual fee based on usage. Roam Secure also remotely monitors the system and can notify the university if it finds any problems.

Within two months of Maryland’s implementation of RSAN, 5,000 of the university’s 35,000 students and 12,000 faculty and staff members signed up for the system. Gruber’s goal is collect 25,000 users by the end of October. Signing up is voluntary, but Gruber expects the pace to pick up after the university steps up its efforts. After people sign up for the list, they remain on it until they opt out. “

Just by word of mouth, we already have close to 5,000 people on the system, and we haven’t done any marketing,” he says. “Our marketing campaign will start in the fall semester, and we anticipate 20,000 to 30,000 people by midsemester on the system.”

While the university hasn’t had to use its notification system in an emergency, Gruber conducts monthly emergency notification tests for the sirens, the text messaging system and a wall-mounted wireless system that uses sirens, strobes and text displays to inform people on campus how to respond to emergencies. University of Maryland students designed the wireless system.

“People buy nice toys, but they don’t test them,” Gruber says. “When the time comes and we have to use it, it’ll be like second nature.”

Gruber says Maryland conducts tests of its emergency system the first Wednesday of every month, and they’ve come off without a hitch. “It’s almost instantaneous within seconds of the message being sent,” he says.

In addition to the mass notification systems, the university also has targeted messaging systems that alert specific groups — department heads or deans, for example — to emergencies. The campus police dispatchers practice sending these targeted messages to all key groups within 10 minutes, according to Gruber.

Get on the Same Page

Florida International University officials are also expanding their emergency notification system by integrating new systems with several already in place, says Odalys Diaz, assistant director of voice services.

Last year, the university’s housing department began equipping most of its dorms with Valcom emergency notification systems: wall-mounted boxes with buttons that initiate instant two-way communication and broadcast emergency notifications.

In January, the university implemented Berbee’s InformaCast system. Campus officials can use software to create emergency messages that can be displayed as text on the LCD panels of the school’s 5,100 staff IP phones. The messages get sent simultaneously over the phones’ speakers as well as in the campus common areas.

The Valcom and InformaCast systems are integrated so that a single message can be distributed simultaneously over both systems.

Redundancy is also a good idea, so Florida International has a separate system that sends text messages, phone calls and e-mails to its core emergency group charged with restoring the facility in an emergency. So, for instance, if an emergency message is distributed to mobile phones, but cell phone towers are down, the system will send the messages to the IP phones, home phones, office phones or any other emergency number provided by recipients. It also lets message recipients send replies to confirm they’re OK.

Florida International has designated funds to expand the InformaCast system to reach classrooms.

“We plan to place an IP phone in classrooms to enable the emergency notifications to reach students in the classes,” Diaz says. “We are investigating other options such as speakers for common areas and other tools that will allow us to communicate with students during an emergency.”

Non-Emergency Uses Notification systems can also serve as communication tools for routine situations, such as cancellation of classes and meetings or to remind students of campus activities.

Messages on Display

After a 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire left 100 dead, the state stiffened its fire codes. Among the changes was a rule that paper messages could be displayed in public buildings only if they were encased in glass. That meant that the banners and notices that peppered the halls of Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., had to come down.

The college installed systems that feed messages to digital displays and through the campus TV system to replace the paper notices alerting its 3,200 students of socials, meetings, class cancellations, parking lot closures and other day-to-day happenings.

While the messaging systems were installed for routine communications, they can also prove critical in emergency situations. The school formed a committee to explore how best to use the equipment that’s already installed and how to expand upon and test it in case disaster strikes.

Because Bryant was already so far ahead of the curve when it came to notification systems, officials from other colleges have toured the campus to see the digital signage systems in action.

At the core of Bryant’s mass notification infrastructure are two systems: a messaging system that broadcasts typed messages in text and audio form to Cisco Voice over IP (VoIP) phones in dorms (they’re being expanded to administrative offices); and a broadcast system used to create, administer and distribute messages to digital displays, the college cable TV station and screen savers in classrooms and labs.

“We were finding that e-mail wasn’t working too well,” says Phillip Lombardi, director of academic computing and media services in Bryant’s information services department. “Students were either filtering their e-mail or they just weren’t reading it.”

Bryant has more than 150 digital displays, ranging from 17-inch LCDs in hallways to 50-inch plasmas in large rooms. About 50 of the displays are 21-inch models from NEC Display Solutions. Bryant plans to install more displays in a 200-room dorm due to open in September.

Bryant administrators have considered displaying messages on the screen savers of notebooks given to all incoming freshman. Officials are also looking into tying the message system to projectors so they could display alerts in case of an emergency, and are considering sending text message alerts to cell phones.

“We’re trying to hit them from every angle to get their attention,” Lombardi explains. “It’s such a visual society. You have to get people’s attention any way you can.”

Consider This

Tips for getting the most out of a notification system.

  • A cellular carrier can mistake a mass text mailing for spam. Make sure to spell out notification plans with carriers when implementing a system and ensure they have adequate capacity to quickly process mass notifications.
  • Make sure campus and city 911 operations are interconnected. For the past year, Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., has been piloting Cisco’s IP Interoperability Collaboration System, which would integrate campus and town police and fire radios so they can communicate in an emergency. The system would also give town first responders remote access to campus video cameras.
  • Two-way communication systems let message recipients send replies, which can be valuable when trying to account for people during an emergency.
  • When emergencies strike, systems go down or become inaccessible. Look for one that offers multiple means of sending messages (phone or computer) and delivers them to several channels (mobile phones, e-mail, Web portals).

Need to Know

Questions you should ask when looking to purchase a mass notification system:

  • How long does it take to activate the system?
  • Does it provide indoor and outdoor coverage?
  • How much technical expertise is needed to manage and maintain the hardware, software and network?
  • Is it easy to integrate with other parts of your disaster recovery and business continuity strategy?
  • Is it easy to update the contacts database, and can you add contacts located outside the institution?

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