Communicating in an Emergency

Bob Lang of Kennesaw State University is addressing mass notification by deploying multiple layers of technology

Why is it that we put so much of our effort into centralizing systems that monitor our facilities and so little focus on the technologies that could help get that vital information back out to the people who need it? Why are they called “command centers” if we have no way to command?

When Robert Lang first arrived as Chief Security Officer at Kennesaw State University in 2007, there was no solution in place to deal with mass notification.

“I asked the question, ‘What are we really doing here to communicate with our people,’” Lang says. “The more we looked into it, we realized we weren’t doing anything. There were individual silos, but nothing comprehensive.”

Why is Mass Notification Important?
KSU is the third-largest university in the Georgia system. With 20,000 students and a 240-acre campus, communication of any sort with the campus population requires planning. While they have been fortunate enough not to have a major incident, the need for a plan for crisis communications was clear. KSU is located in close proximity to both a major railroad corridor and a main interstate. While the chances of a chemical spill from those two sources are not overwhelming, they are large enough to require a plan. Kennesaw is also located in a part of the country that has an above-average number of tornados each year. While those factors would be enough to justify preparation, the specter of last year’s campus shootings at Virginia Tech and other universities have most major universities reconsidering their mass notification systems.

After the Virginia Tech shootings of April 2007, the technologies to rapidly send messages to a campus population have received a lot of discussion. The truth is, however, that many of the technologies have been around for a long time. Voice evacuation has been a part of modern fire alarm technology since the early 1970s. Outdoor sirens have been a part of the civil defense scene for decades. What’s been missing, however, is the realization that there are a wide variety of common events that should be communicated quickly, and the importance of guaranteeing that these messages get through. While the campus shooters may have gotten our attention, many other circumstances such as weather events, fires, bomb threats, chemical spills and a host of other events can require immediate action.

“I have a service now on my cell phone that alerts me when any kind of campus alert happens around the nation — I probably get five or six a day,” Lang says.
Some types of events have dedicated communications paths (like fire), but the need to communicate the others was below the radar for a number of institutions.
Beyond simple awareness, there were other barriers to an integrated approach. One of the key turning points came from the June 1996 terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. That incident caused the U.S. Department of Defense to take a hard look at its need to handle communication in a crisis, and resulted in the issuance of a new standard for mass notification systems in DoD facilities (UFC 4-021-01).
The issuance of that standard caused the Air Force to petition the National Fire Protection Association to change its NFPA 72 standard. They wanted to allow the use of voice evacuation systems for any crisis situation — not just the fire protection mission for which they were installed. Those changes were made in the 2007 edition of the NFPA code and marked the completion of a change in industry thinking to a comprehensive approach to mass notification.

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