Shortening the learning curve

Four security strategies that work for colleges and universities


The higher education security standard of care continues to evolve, with technology playing a more important role than ever. Today's more security-conscious environment requires much more than a well-thought-out plan. Effective implementation of key strategies is paramount to both security program perception and reality.

Campus administrators are getting much better at understanding security technologies, their limitations, and how they should fit into their security program. This article expands on four strategies the nation's leading universities are successfully implementing to take maximum advantage of what security technology has to offer.

Strategy 1: Widest Net Mass Notification

Keeping students, staff, faculty and parents informed in a crisis and maintaining a sense of order is appropriately high on everyone's list of important issues. Given the saturation of instant communication technologies like twitter into our daily lives, Clery Act interpretations of how fast notifications must occur to be considered "timely" are expected to shorten significantly (Note: The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their respective campuses).

Historically, the industry push for "silver bullet" application solutions has overshadowed some of the real limitations of some of these technology interdependent applications. E-mail, text messaging and Web-enabled devices are so engrained in our daily lives that their application as universal saviors in a crisis seems on its face to be sound judgment. However, real-world realities have shown us that, for larger institutions at least, there are fundamental flaws in the execution of an approach relying on only one or two notification technologies.

No matter how robust the infrastructure or confident the promises, the logistics of maintaining massive lists of high turnover populations and real limitations of technology in a crisis has proven to be a bigger challenge than anticipated. Fundamental misperceptions about what certain systems are capable of doing are still a regular occurrence, sometimes resulting in an incomplete emergency notification strategy and unfulfilled campus needs.

Sending tens of thousands of e-mails and/or text messages at once has overwhelmed systems and caused embarrassing delays in getting word to intended recipients. In many cases, alerts have been received many hours after an incident's conclusion and after media reporting has occurred. In a recent incident report on the Virginia Tech incident, administrative staff warned their own families nearly 90 minutes before the rest of the campus was notified.

The good news is campuses that have deployed solutions are re-evaluating their notification systems and replacing insufficient systems with more robust and flexible services. New purchasers of notification systems are taking advantage of the lessons learned by early technology adopters. The new standard-of-care focuses on a multi-mode system strategy that incorporates high-tech, low-tech and no-tech solutions into their notification plan. While text messaging still remains an important component of the alert program, comprehensive solutions now include radio, television, audio paging, instant messaging, phone calls, digital message boards, improved continuous awareness training, and even old-fashioned emergency lights and sirens.

One technology that promises to ease the performance problems associated with cell phone messaging even further is "cellular broadcasting." Instead of needing to acquire and maintain massive user lists, cellular broadcasting allows for transmitting a message simultaneously to anyone near a particular cell tower. This technology greatly reduces drain on network resources which will lead to significantly increased performance and system effectiveness.

Strategy 2: Intelligent Video Analytics Ready for Prime Time

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