Dec 15 2009

Emergency Notification Systems Get the Word Out

Colleges deploy IP-based products that support everything from voice to texting and even social media.
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There's a security threat at the student union. A water main has broken, flooding the main administration building. A tornado is churning toward the dorms. A suspicious package just arrived in the mailroom of the engineering school. The police have cordoned off the campus, and traffic is backed up for miles.

No matter what the emergency, you need to notify a lot of people in a hurry. How do you do it?

As the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech tragically proved, yesterday's technologies – sirens, calling trees and the emergency broadcast network – are no longer sufficient.

That's why many colleges and universities are adopting IP-based systems that integrate a wide range of communications technologies, from voice to texting to Twitter.

When a crisis looms near the University of California, Los Angeles, 62,000 faculty, staff and students can learn about it via their cell phones, e-mail or TV sets, through loudspeakers and online at social networking sites. But until recently, getting word out to these disparate systems wasn't easy.

“Two years ago we had up to eight different people operating eight different systems issuing alerts,” says David Burns, UCLA's emergency manager. “It was messy, chaotic, and could take up to an hour to notify everyone.”

Today, once Burns receives approval, he can log onto AtHoc's IWSAlerts system to send one alert that reaches all of his constituents, or preselected groups, within 15 minutes.  So far, the system has been used successfully to alert the community about earthquakes, wildfires, suspicious packages and police actions near campus.

Approximately 96% of the United States is covered by some type of 911 service.

Some campuses require even more specialized solutions. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the university's voice-based notification system can reach 10,000 members of the CMU community within about 10 minutes, says Madelyn Miller, CMU's director of environmental health and safety. But there are some underground labs a cell signal or even a police radio can't penetrate, she says.

To reach those areas, CMU deployed an individually addressable two-way radio system using mesh networks and an FM digital subcarrier. That way, if an accident impacts just part of a building, only the people affected will be notified.

And if some catastrophic event causes all technology options to fail, CMU will dispatch the university's track team to post notes on people's doors, says Miller, just like the ancient Greeks.

Once you've deployed an ENS, the hard work is just beginning, warns Bo Mitchell, president of 911 Consulting and a former Connecticut police commissioner.

An effective notification system must be part of a comprehensive emergency response plan that entails far more than dialing 911 and pinning an evacuation map to the wall. This is where 99 percent of organizations fail, Mitchell says.

Mitchell's advice is to establish a command and control infrastructure. Everyone needs to know who has the authority to issue an alert, who needs to receive it, and who is responsible for keeping everyone updated as the situation unfolds.

Everyone – not just safety coordinators – must be schooled about what to do in case of emergency. Organizations need to train all their personnel, run regular drills on the system and assess what works and what doesn't. Tabletop exercises, a fast and inexpensive way to test your plan and train your staff, should be held once every quarter.

You also must perform a headcount, so you know if someone is on vacation rather than trapped somewhere on campus. Mitchell has developed a technology called 911 Headcount that lets employees check in via their phones or PCs when a crisis hits.

“This is a 100 percent business,” says Mitchell. “If one person gets injured or worse because your emergency response plan was flawed, you've failed.”

ENS Deployment Tips

  • Think multimode. You'll need to issue alerts to a wide range of devices, from phones and computers to TV sets and loudspeakers. Ideally, a single ENS will talk to all devices you need to reach.
  • Plan to send multiple alerts. People may miss the first alert or not take it seriously. Or you may need to reach them on a specific device. And you'll need to keep them updated as the situation changes.
  • Script your outgoing alerts before a crisis hits. Even then, you'll have to customize your alerts for each situation.
  • Encourage participation. Employees may be automatically enrolled in an ENS, but systems that alert the general public are usually voluntary. Encourage the community to sign up by offering useful daily information such as traffic or weather updates.
  • Have a backup plan. Generators may fail, and cell phone service may become overloaded. In a worst-case scenario you might need a low-tech way to spread the word.