Effective crisis response on campus becoming more dependent on mobile communication

Oct. 8, 2014
Emergency mass notification strategies evolve as networks expand on today’s universities

Campus safety has always been a critical priority for the administrations of colleges and universities.  With student populations sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands, along with university faculty and staff, the challenges can be daunting, especially when you factor in how dispersed these populations are among large campuses across dozens, if not hundreds of buildings.  Furthermore, this “population” is moving at all times.  Unlike a company or business where the population is sitting at a desk all day; a university is a dynamic environment where students and faculty movement is constant.

How do you devise a crisis response system that takes into account all of these factors and ensure safety amidst an array of potential situations such as active shooters or inclement weather?

Perhaps a model can be found in what Texas A&M University (TAMU) and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) are doing. Both have attempted to take advantage of the ubiquitous use of mobile devices such as phones, tablets and laptops to implement a mass notification system that uses texts, phone calls, emails, push notifications, and alerts.

TAMU has established a system called “Code Maroon,” which is an emergency mass notification system that gives the university the ability to communicate health and safety information to provide official notification of critical emergencies (i.e. situations that pose an imminent, physical threat to the community).

When the school received a serious campus-wide bomb scare in October 2012, the school’s “Code Maroon” alerts were delivered to more than 60,000 students, faculty and staff within minutes.

The campus dispatch center sent out simultaneous SMS text messages, along with a message on Twitter (@TAMUCodeMaroon), an RSS feed, and pop-ups that appeared on computers connected to the campus network. At the same time, audible emergency messages were broadcast on the campus radio station KAMU-FM, Emergency Alert System (EAS) Radios, and over classroom speakers, while text messages scrolled on the campus cable TV channel and any TV on the campus cable system.

The messages urged people to evacuate a campus area consisting of 700 buildings covering 5,000 acres without using their cars so no traffic jams would result. In the end, the system worked and the campus was safely evacuated.

Similar alerts were received within minutes when a fatal shooting occurred near the school in August 2012, warning people to stay away from the area, and also during tornadoes and a rare ice storm that shut down the campus.

Through their “Code Maroon” system, TAMU can now send simultaneous messages 11 different ways to alert students, faculty, staff and parents to emergency situations on campus using AtHoc’s Emergency Mass Notification System software utilizing the San Mateo, Calif.-based company’s IWSAlerts Unified Mass Notification system.

Text alerts are the most popular at TAMU, with SMS messages taking five to seven minutes to be delivered, as opposed to 10 to 20 minutes via email, while voice messages over speakers and radio take only about a minute. The school tries to keep texts messages short to fit Twitter’s 140-character limit, and they sometimes contain a link or direct users to the university’s emergency response webpage for additional information.

Simultaneous messaging was a big upgrade for the university, which implemented an emergency response system in 2008 after the shooting at Virginia Tech left 33 people dead. The first system TAMU used, however, only offered email and text messaging, each of which had to be sent out separately.

“We need a variety of methods to get to people,” says Charley Clark, associate vice president for University Risk and Compliance at Texas A&M. “We wanted to be able to issue one message at one time and that would be broadcast in a variety of methods.”

The software used by TAMU sends out messages quickly and effectively and has helped integrate several of the campus’ communications systems. Hardware modules enable IP connections to speakers, social media, weather alerting, and personnel data.

280 classrooms at TAMU have loudspeakers already on the university’s IP network, allowing audible alerts in classrooms where cell phones are required to be off.  The same message is broadcast over the campus radio system and on emergency response radios. Anyone watching TV connected to the campus cable TV system or watching the campus TV station will see a message on screen as well.

A dispatcher at the campus police station can also send the messages via a Web-based dashboard, and send separate messages to certain groups to direct emergency response teams. The school’s IT staff worked with dispatchers on training them on how to use the system.

TAMU’s primary and secondary software licenses allowed the system to exist on different servers that mirrored each other and required that the databases on each, containing all the contacts and delivery methods for the alerting system, were synched and up to date. An upgrade to a virtual networking environment with database clustering has eased that burden and now keeps that data up to date, says Marlin Crouse, TAMU’s senior lead software applications developer.

To ensure privacy and security, TAMU retains sole possession of the personally identifiable information of all the individuals that are on the system.

TAMU has also dedicated itself to transparency, publishing the results of every alert since 2010 and the how long it takes for the messages to be sent by the various means on its Code Maroon website.

The university is also in the process of adding other communications methods to the mix, including voice alerts through fire alarm panel speakers, digital displays in the lobbies and other public areas and increasing the use of desktop pop-up messaging from 5,000 to 40,000 networked computers.

A smartphone app to enable messaging is also available. The app acts like a text message and may be delivered even faster, Clark says. “We grew up with the system and are adding other methods as they are available.”

UCLA has its own campus-wide emergency alert system called “Bruin Alert,” also using the same software from AtHoc’s IWS Alerts that Texas A&M is using. UCLA was one of the first major American universities to deploy an effective mass notification system that fully unifies all campus communications resources. On July 29, 2008, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck the greater Los Angeles area. Emergency managers at UCLA successfully used AtHoc IWSAlerts to notify the campus population.

Within minutes of the earthquake, the first alerts were sent out as emails and SMS/text messages to the more than 60,000 students and staff on the UCLA campus. Students and staff were informed that an earthquake had taken place and were warned about aftershocks. They were also directed to tune into the campus radio station for additional instructions.

That was the first actual emergency use of the “Bruin Alert” system since it was deployed by UCLA in November of 2007.

Similar to TAMU, a single Web-based application unifies and manages alerts to campus AM radio, cable TV, outdoor sirens, cell phones, landline phones, SMS text messages, emails, RSS feeds and digital display boards.

Because of the university’s innovative approach to emergency alerting, UCLA was recognized by the California Emergency Services Association with its Gold Award in recognition of the BruinAlert campus emergency alerting system.

In 2007, UCLA began researching and evaluating network-centric emergency alerting technologies as a complement to its existing systems. UCLA’s emergency notification capabilities had evolved to incorporate new technologies. As a result, the university had a number of separate alerting systems, including bulk email, a toll-free number, AM radio, a cable television station and a Web site.

The problem was that no single method of emergency notification could guarantee

contact with everyone during an emergency. For example, many universities rely solely on text alerting for mass notification, which limits the ability to reach the entire population during an emergency.

Before beginning its research, UCLA administrators identified and developed a list of requirements they felt were essential to a university mass notification system. These included:

  • Unified and multi-channel alerting – alerts need to be sent through multiple redundant channels, including radio, cable TV, sirens, cell phones, SMS text messages, emails, RSS feeds and desktop computers
  • Rapid alert dissemination across entire campus – in the event of an emergency, alerts need to be delivered as quickly as possible to everyone on campus within minutes
  • Scalability to over 60,000 people – with a large and growing population, any notification system needs to reliably support tens of thousands of users
  • Not dependent on self-subscription; people needed to be alerted regardless of whether or not they subscribe to alerts
  • Redundant system – to remain operational in the case of a data center failure, redundancy must be built into the system
  • Security – access rights and authorization need to be robust to prevent compromising of the system and alert abuse
  • Integration with internal directories – it was critical that personal contact information be up to date and accurate. Therefore the notification system had to integrate with existing contact repositories
  • Enterprise-wide centralized management – reliable control and management of all components using a Web-based interface was key to the system

Taking a network-centric approach to emergency alerting addressed UCLA’s requirements. It turned all network-connected devices, such as computer desktops and mobile devices, into alarms. The approach also created a unified platform for managing and triggering traditional alerting channels such as sirens, radios and public address systems.

Bruin Alert now protects UCLA’s population by delivering alerts to individuals via multiple, redundant channels. Alerts are sent through a single, Web-based application that manages alert dissemination via telephones, SMS/text, email, campus sirens, campus cable TV and radio, network-connected computers, and the emergency digital information system.

 The system was also integrated with the California’s Emergency Digital Information Service. All integrations used the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), a standard for emergency communications interoperability. A failover system at an off-site location is incorporated in the system, providing an additional level of redundancy for high reliability if the primary system goes down.

Furthermore, given that the system leverages the university’s existing alerting infrastructure, UCLA experiences significant cost savings instead of having to develop and implement an entirely separate network.  The network- centric approach uses the campus’ IP network to enable faster mass notification over a large and geographically-dispersed area.

Also similar to TAMU, UCLA installed the system behind its firewall. The system was integrated with the university’s user directories to ensure access to the most updated contact information for students, faculty and staff while maintaining security and the privacy of user information. Every night, the system automatically synchronizes its contact database with university repositories to update names, email addresses, telephone numbers and other contact information.

University personnel with alerting authority can trigger alerts from any network-connected PC using a Web browser. They can select or modify a menu of predefined alert scenarios.

The system also has a subscription page to make it as easy as possible for faculty and students to update their contact information. UCLA has over 20 custom scenarios covering the most likely emergency situations the university could encounter, including: earthquakes, thunderstorms, campus violence and hazardous material spills.

Triggering an alert is simple. “We just add the location of the emergency, fill in the blanks, target the recipient groups and send out the alert,” said David Burns, former emergency manager for UCLA.

Once the system was deployed, UCLA began a campaign to promote awareness of and participation in the alert system. For the initial launch, the General Services Emergency Management office sent over 47,000 messages, including SMS/text messages, emails and desktop notifications to students, faculty and staff. Today, the UCLA “Bruin Alert” system consistently reaches more than 99 percent of subscribers.

While advanced systems like the ones at Texas A&M and UCLA are more an exception than the rule for emergency notification processes at universities and colleges, the trend is growing.  Unfortunately, there continues to be no shortage of crisis incidents occurring on today’s campuses.  But the technology and process now exist to mitigate those threats and create a safer environment for students and staff.

About the Author: Efraim Petel is vice president, Global Public Safety, at AtHoc, Inc.