"That is really the roadmap VT has taken to build its emergency management system," said Mulhare. "One of the primary baseline considerations when it comes to assessing technology is that it needs to work when it needs to work – and work efficiently. That is the underlining parameter. You realize there is no system or technology that is 100 percent fail safe, so you must make sure you have built in redundancy in your system."
The redundancies incorporated into the Virginia Tech system have made it one of the most dynamic in the country. There are currently eight modes of emergency communication on campus that include the Virginia Tech homepage, broadcast e-mails, electronic message boards in classrooms, VT Phone Alerts via text message, email or phone call, VT desktop computer alerts, incorporation of social media like Facebook and Twitter, a recorded hotline, and campus sirens and loudspeakers. Even without students or staff signing up, emergency notifications are sent through all delivery methods except for VT phone alerts, social media, and the VT desktop alerts.
Instituting a set of clear and concise emergency protocols is another of the keys Mulhare sees as ensuring a successful mission. His team enforces five clear mandates that include formalizing the intent of the emergency network system, providing a workable standard of operations, removing any ambiguities in the emergency message, creating a legally defendable position for all actions taken during an emergency situation, and finally, authorizing decision-making capabilities at the operational and response levels.
"You only have one shot to get your first message out where it will be most impactful. Because incidents are usually fluid and things rapidly change, you want to make sure you are getting the most accurate and needed information out during that first incident," said Mulhare. "You must also be aware that as the demand on your infrastructure increases and as the demand for information increases, your ability to deliver additional messages may not be as good as that first one."
He cites two prime examples as being the recent Boston Marathon bombing that saw cellular service slow down and some key communication systems overloaded or completely shutdown. And of course, the communication nightmare that occurred as the terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers played out.
As his community expands, Mulhare’s department realizes it must also grow to meet the needs of the university. The use of social media is certainly one of the most dynamic tools that have impacted the emergency communication network, but the evolution of real-time smart phone apps is a new and exciting development. The new VT Gemini app provides mapping information of the buildings on campus and an emergency quick reference guide, along with a more detailed set of specific guides pulled from the website.
"We have a lot of outreach material and methods to get notification and information out to the community, but one of the things we wanted to do was to make information ‘just-in-time’ as we can, because we realize that much of our community and constituency aren’t thinking about these issues in their everyday lives," he said. "So the app puts emergency information right on their mobile device – currently just smartphones. It lets the user know what to do in an emergency and where the Blue Light phones are on campus if they need to interact with security and aren’t able to use 911."
Mr. Mulhare will be one of the invited speakers at the 5th Secured Cities Conference in Baltimore, November 14-15, 2013. You can register at www.securedcities.com.