Communicating in an Emergency

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.

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.

Why Layers are Necessary
Many institutions responded to the need for mass communications by implementing just one of the possible technologies. Unfortunately, while that approach can meet budget objectives, it often does not satisfy the need to provide comprehensive communications during a crisis.

Each of the technologies has a blind spot. Sirens can not be heard indoors. Cell phones have dead spots in large buildings unless repeaters have been installed. Cell phones also may often be turned off during class. Voice evacuation systems do not cover the areas between buildings. Messages to computer desktops do not help if you are not near one. Digital signage can not be installed cost-effectively and still provide campus-wide blanket coverage.
All of the vendors in the space seem to agree the answer is to use as many paths of communication as you can. That said, multiple systems bring with them administrative complexity unless they are designed to work together. Standalone systems require multiple people to be trained and then cross trained.

The answer is integration. “We are putting all of our systems on our network,” Lang says. “We want to be able to trigger the system from any location and have the right messages be automatically sent for any event.”

Justifying It All
Undeniably, a layered system is more expensive than a single-technology approach. While a good system is in the same range of expenditure as a typical CCTV system, that doesn’t mean it is in the budget. Two key factors may help. A system that is used for more than just crisis management and by more than just the security department will be viewed as adding real value every day. Systems such as digital signage and telephone messaging can be used for a wide variety of student and faculty communications. The only issue with this kind of dual use is making sure that there is a clear difference between the presentation of emergency and non-emergency communications. Without that, there is a high likelihood that crisis communications will be ignored. “For cell phone communications, it is critical that your system uses Caller-ID so emergency messages can be clearly labeled,” Rabe says.

Beyond this everyday value, the other key factor that can help justification is an understanding of the damage one incident can do to the brand image of the institution. “A lot of people are looking for a single solution for budget reasons, understandably,” Lang says. “But if the worst does happen, you’ll be second guessed forever. One incident can bury your university.”

Rich Anderson is the president of Phare Consulting, a firm providing technology and growth strategies for the security industry. A 25-year veteran of high tech electronics, Mr. Anderson previously served as the VP of Marketing for GE Security and the VP of Engineering for CASI-RUSCO. He can be reached at