Vertical Market Focus: Education--UNH Alert System Pings the Public

Nov. 19, 2012
University of New Hampshire's geo-based mass notification

Everyone likes something extra. The University of New Hampshire’s public safety notification system delivers the expected security features but it goes beyond public safety. The school can leverage its security investment for everyday uses—like promoting bookstore sales or updating parking availability.

      Like most other colleges, UNH has several emergency platforms in place to protect students and faculty. The rub is how to reach visitors—alumni, visiting sports teams—who are not in the campus database. The Clery Act requires everyone be notified of dangerous situations, 24/7. How does one reach outsiders?

 “We were looking to add some redundancy to our existing system and add some features to ensure we could reach all communities on campus,” said Paul Dean, chief of police and executive director of public safety at UNH. “Emergency notification on college campuses is a hot button issue,” he added.

 UNH uses a system called Ping4 alerts. It will wake up a smartphone and alert users of incidents or events happening on campus, according to Michael Welts, senior vice president at Ping4. Its technology draws a geofence around any sized area and alerts anyone with the app downloaded. The app is free to users. It pays for itself by licensing and revenue sharing with the user. It was launched in New Hampshire in March with the Manchester, N.H., police department.

 An alert can be campus-wide or localized to a single dorm that may be without hot water, for example. In the case of a recent sexual assault, a region of the campus was alerted. Since the app is full rich-media, a photo or video of a suspect can be attached to the alert.

 “Look at this technology and look at the gaps in your emergency notification system,” said Dean. He merged Ping4 with his existing RSS feed.

 Beyond colleges, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is using it for emergency management. So is Littleton, Colo. A user signed up in one community, will automatically get emergency notifications when they move inside another geo-fence (but will not be bothered when they are not inside the geo-fence).

Getting the outsiders involved is a key component. At UNH athletic events, visitors can win t-shirts for signing up. UNH housing makes email blasts with the information in it. Dean used the example of a Harvard student who comes to UNH for a hockey game. Inside UNH’s catchment, the student would get UNH alerts. Outside it, he is not bothered.

 Dean likes the fact the app lives in the background and does not require anyone to give a cell phone number or email address. Since it is app-based, there is little battery drain. It works on Android and iPhone platforms right now. Windows devices will be up in the first half of 2013, Welts said.

Dean said UNH cannot rely 100 percent on Ping4 since only 58 percent of the campus has smartphones. “To comply with the Clery Act, I need to reach 100 percent of the people,” Dean said. “One system is not a catch-all. I believe in redundancy. I want our public to have several options.”

 Jamie Heitmiller, Ping4’s director of sales for education, said the system can:  

  • Warn of storms or natural disasters
  • Protect and inform students during attacks
  • Provide emergency communications during a power outage or communications failure
  • Help find missing persons
  • Evacuate buildings or move people away from crime scenes

Given the growth in smartphone use, the system makes sense. Heitmiller said that while 52 percent of the university population, nationwide, currently carries a smartphone, by 2016, that figure is projected at 90 percent.

 The secure Web interface lets a school create and “broadcast” alerts to any sized location from a parking space to a stadium to an entire town. They can post event information, bookstore sales, cafeteria menus, or deals from local merchants.

 App overload is avoided because each department or merchant must be individually selected by the user to receive their alerts. Students and staff self-select to receive different kinds of alerts. However, if a user signs up for a business deal, public safety automatically is added. The community information may be what keeps the app on the students smart phones but for UNH, it is the public safety benefits, including Clery compliance, that are invaluable.