Initial observations praise VA Tech emergency notification system

On December 9, 2011, in News, by with SRA International

After yesterday’s shooting incident at Virginia Tech, initial reports are praising the performance of the university’s emergency notification system. The multi-pronged alert system apparently went into full operation yesterday, alerting students of the incident via multiple platforms:

  • electronic message boards
  • text messages
  • emails
  • automated phone calls
  • desktop alerts on campus computers
  • sirens and loudspeakers around campus

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—After the tragedy of Virginia Tech in 2007, colleges and universities rushed to adopt mass notification technologies. Most of these systems required students to submit their cell phone numbers in order to receive emergency notifications. However, this reliance on third-party cellular carriers has caused concern for some educational security directors, including Koren Kanadanian, director of emergency management at Providence College.

“With cell phones, the problem is that once we hit the button to push out the message through the system we’re limited by the cellular carriers,” he said. “We have no control over how that message gets out, so it could take quite a while. We do a test each semester to 6,000 people and sometimes it takes 30 minutes or more for that message to go out.”

Kanadanian said it wasn’t the primary message that concerned him as much as the follow-up message. As soon as the initial warning is sent, students are likely to immediately use their cell phones to call friends and parents, further stressing the cellular network and likely hindering the ability for the school to issue updated information. “An active shooter is a very fluid incident and within a minute or two the threat could be in another building or area of campus,” he said. “I might give an initial message and need to follow it up in a short time frame.”

Next semester, the school will begin using a dedicated emergency alert system, the RavenAlert system from IntelliGuard Systems, which notifies students via a key fob rather than through their cell phones. “With the fob it’s nice knowing it’s specific to just emergency messages and if it goes off then something is happening,” he said. Whereas, other schools have had problems with students being confused or ignoring emergency messages from the school when it comes via their personal cell phone.

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Campus Notifications and Costs

On April 5, 2010, in Alerts & Warnings 101, General, News, by with SRA International

Interesting article that provides costs associated with sending/testing notification systems ($ 0.09 per text). Also, notice the low rate of participation from staff members (16% as compared to a 83% student participation).

Emergency texts cost thousands to send

By Andrea Hammer

Campus Editor

Publication Date: 04/02/10

Imagine the cost of texting more than 35,000 people. That’s what the University pays every time it sends out an emergency notification.

A prank in which a student was abducted from the bus stop as a joke ended up costing Purdue $7,560 for two text messages to be sent to all 37,004 people on the text alerts list.

According to Carol Shelby, senior director of environmental health and public safety, it costs the University $0.09 for each phone number that receives a message.

Jeanne Norberg, University spokeswoman, said that though the amount of people enrolled changes daily, the enrollment is roughly 83 percent students and 16 percent staff.

There is also cost associated with testing the emergency notification systems.

“Typically, we do have to pay for the test messages as well,” said Shelby. “Similar to the outdoor all-hazards warning sirens, testing the text messaging system is fundamental to ensuring that the system will work when it is needed for mass notification to the Purdue community.”

Norberg said that although messages were originally sent out through the University’s news service, it is now controlled through the Purdue University Police Department.

“We have someone on call 24 hours a day,” Norberg said.

Sometimes students might notice a lapse of an hour or more from the time the incident happened to the time they receive a notification. Norberg said the University sends out a notification after it is realized there’s a threat to safety.

“We send out the alert as soon as we know there is a possible issue of public safety,” Norberg said. “It may be only after investigation do we realize it’s a potential concern and then we send out an alert. The clock doesn’t start when the incident happens; the clock starts when we realize there’s a threat to public safety.”

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UA officials confident about alert system

On February 16, 2010, in News, by with Touchstone Consulting Group

By Stephanie Taylor Staff Writer

Published: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 15, 2010 at 11:33 p.m.

TUSCALOOSA | The emergency notification system at the University of Alabama has been activated only for weather warnings, but officials are confident it can be triggered quickly if a bigger tragedy unfolds.

 similar system failed at the University of Alabama in Huntsville on Friday after a shooting at the school’s biology building. Some UAH students complained because the emergency alert text messages were sent at 4:42 p.m., 45 minutes after the first 911 call was placed at 3:57 p.m. Some students said in media interviews that they were not notified by the university at all.Professor Amy Bishop has been charged with shooting three faculty members during a meeting. No students were in the area, officials reported.

“The U-Alert was triggered late because the people involved in activating that system were involved in responding to the shooting,” UAH Police Chief Charles Gailes said at a news conference. “We’re going to stop, we’re going to sit down, we’re going to review what happened. All of these actions are going to be learning points, and we’re going to be better for this.”

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Functional Requirements for Next Generation Mass Notification Systems

On January 15, 2010, in News, by with Touchstone Consulting Group

- by Berkly Trumbo, Siemens Industry Inc.

While the latest update to NFPA redefines Mass Notification as “Emergency Communications Systems (ECS)”, the end user community is formulating expectations related to the future functionality of today’s alerting solutions.

Numerous best practices have surfaced since alerting technology began its rapid, mainstream adoption and the NFPA is looking to incorporate pressure tested protocols in the new code. The latest updates refer to “wide-area” and “distributed recipient notification” in addition to building notifications. Wide area being the geography surrounding a building on a particular campus and distributed recipient notification as “expanded beyond the facility and the area, to be accomplished through means such as telephone calls, text messaging, and emails”.

So far, colleges, corporations and government entities have made significant investments in technology platforms and end point devices towards a goal of safer, more secure campus environments but still have not solved all critical messaging challenges. As an industry, emergency communications has vaulted forward from the days of single tone sirens but new gaps in functionality are appearing when considering a holistic approach to mass notification. Emergency Management professionals have been left with a complex array of disparate systems to use when seconds count the most.

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