Communicating in an Emergency

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


Why a Simple Signal is Not Enough
It is not enough to warn people that an event is occurring without being able to provide them with instructions that lead them to safety. “The key issue is the need to distinguish between sheltering-in and getting out,” Lang says. “A simple siren just does not give you the ability to react to a chlorine spill and a hostage incident with different warnings.”

In addition, some technologies are better than others for delivering long messages. “A chemical spill in a university lab, for example, may call for specific instructions based on the type of chemical,” says Jeremy Krinitt, vice president of marketing for React Systems. “With messaging to computers or to digital signage, we can even give first aid instructions.”

What also becomes apparent is that there is a need to get differing sets of information to different audiences depending on the type of event you are reacting to. IT outages require a different strategy than a weather event. The campus administration may require a more detailed set of instructions than the general student population. “The information must be appropriate to the people who receive it or you will lose the effectiveness of the system,” Krinitt says.

Technological Solutions
There are a number of technologies available today for mass notification. KSU has chosen to implement five of them to provide a communications system with the highest likelihood of delivering the messages.
Perhaps the most straightforward is the outdoor siren or “Giant Voice” system. With a relatively small number of speaker locations, the outdoor area of an entire campus can be covered in a cost-effective manner. While systems are available that only emit siren or warning tones, a better choice is a system that also uses pre-recorded voice messages. Siren-based systems do attract everyone’s attention, but in a system that handles multiple types of hazards, a source for simple instructions is important. “Giant Voice communicates to the largest amount of people in the shortest amount of time,” says Chris Roller, sales manager for American Signal Corp. “The concept of outdoor warning, however, is to get people’s attention and use the voice message to point them to another channel for details.”

Also vital is the need for highly intelligible sound throughout the protected space. While good design and proper speaker placement are very important, selecting a system with a high Common Intelligibility Scale (CIS) capability will make the task a great deal easier. “We chose the American Signal system because we could cover the entire campus with four speaker towers,” says John Dowd, security integration engineer for Convergint Technologies. “The high CIS index of the system made it much easier to accommodate KSU’s desire to relocate some of the towers for esthetic reasons.”

Next on the list is one of the newer technologies that enable messages to be sent to cell phones. While the initial thoughts in the industry were to use only the SMS text messaging capabilities that all phones have today, the thinking has evolved to a multi-modal approach using not only text messaging, but voice mail, land lines, e-mail and pagers. “Some colleges filled their Mass Notification needs with an SMS-only system right after Virginia Tech,” says Natasha Rabe, Public Affairs Officer for Blackboard Connect Inc. “What they didn’t understand was that SMS messaging is not guaranteed and is not the most reliable mechanism to reach out to people.”

Using multiple modes not only improves reliability, but also enables the use of a technique appropriate for the situation. Calls made to faculty and staff during the middle of the night are more likely to be received on a home phone than they might be on a cell phone. While some campuses have reported students having privacy concerns over the release of their cell phone information, KSU has had the opposite reaction, with a number of parents asking to be added to the system. To date, there are more than 35,000 people enrolled — and tests have shown that they can all receive a message within a minute of the command to do so.

Many buildings have existing voice evacuation systems that provide coverage throughout, and that can be used as a part of an overall integrated solution. It is important to use as many existing communication paths as possible — not only to increase reliability, but also to reduce the overall cost of the solution. However, in most cases, not all campus buildings will be equipped with voice evacuation, which will make this a valuable but incomplete solution.
Particularly in an educational environment, IP-based intercoms placed directly into the classroom can add two-way communications. In the case of any sort of hostage or emergency situation, for example, the ability to directly assess the situation can be invaluable. This sort of capability, of course, does raise privacy concerns with students and teachers alike. “At KSU, we are going to resolve that by having a red light come on if the intercom is on,” Lang says.

Finally, digital signage throughout the campus can provide a communications path that enables more detailed instructions and status information. It also accommodates the needs of the hearing impaired. KSU will use them to ensure coverage in areas where cell phone coverage may not be assured. Additionally, there will be large digital signs placed at the campus entrance that can be used in an emergency to announce campus closures.
“[The five systems are] a total package of communications, realizing that there is not one single solution,” Lang says.