The challenge of mass notification systems on American campuses

For most of our history, Americans have felt relatively safe and isolated from violence as they went about their daily work and leisure activities.


For most of our history, Americans have felt relatively safe and isolated from violence as they went about their daily work and leisure activities. Certainly there were inner-city areas where higher crime rates produced headlines in daily newspapers, and isolated events throughout the country often focused national attention on horrific violence for a few days. But fortunately, most Americans took the position that “it can’t happen here, or to me” and continued on with their lives.

Then came the 1999 shooting spree at Columbine High School in Colorado and in a matter of hours, our illusions about personal safety and security were shattered. If the unthinkable could occur on a high school campus in the heartland of America, it could happen anywhere, anytime to anyone. When the terrible events of Sept. 11 occurred, which were soon followed by the anthrax attacks by mail, America’s vulnerability to terror and violence were exposed and the entire country began an immediate transformation to a much higher state of security awareness.

Nowhere has the concern for personal protection hit home more than on the campuses of our colleges and universities. As security breaches became almost commonplace in virtually every area of the country, officials of public educational institutions, especially those located in gang-infested inner cities, were quick to add security measures ranging from metal detectors in their lobbies and in-school security forces to police-manned perimeters.

However, the very essence of a college/university campus devoted to higher learning or a bustling corporate business campus is openness. A reality, for better or worse, is that America is an open society and the personal freedoms that we enjoy as a society are afforded by that openness. So there is a natural resistance to encircling entire widespread, multi-building campuses with barbed wire fences and armed guards, or force people on campus to enter buildings through metal detectors. In the security design profession, we understand that we cannot always prevent incidents from occurring, but it is essential that we possess the capability to respond quickly to mitigate and limit the damage. It is easy to understand why; the focus and emphasis is being placed on responding to the mass notification challenge, or how to best communicate with all campus occupants in the event of an emergency situation.

Purpose of mass notification

What situations require campus officials to be able to communicate with everyone on campus? According to a recent public safety survey conducted over a sampling of public safety officials, the top concern was a natural disaster. Judging from recent hurricanes in the South, tornados in the North and East, and fires in the West, this concern is well-founded.

Aside from weather-related emergencies, the threat could involve a security breach, an act of terrorism, a chemical release, a fire, a utility outage, or any other type of disruptive event. The purpose of a campus-wide mass notification system is to provide a reliable method for officials to notify people on campus of an emergency event and explain what is happening, what to do, where to go, and when it’s safe to resume normal activities.

The mass notification system must have the capabilities to send instructions to people in specific spaces, floors, buildings, and facilities throughout the campus, or in some instances, to an entire regional or global network of people. These instructions can be transmitted via loudspeakers, voice-equipped fire alarms systems, public radio/TV networks, computers, telephones and cell phones, PDAs, visual display signage, and two-way radios. Refer to the sidebar at right for a partial list of technologies that can be part of a mass notification system.

Technology risks and rewards

The leading-edge technology of mass notification always has resided in the government sector, where the risks of security breaches are highest and the consequences can be the most devastating. Following Sept. 11, it became apparent that in order to protect ordinary citizens from terrorism and violence, the government’s advanced technology needed to be shared with system developers, manufacturers, and integrators in the private sector. Under the guidance of the Dept. of Homeland Security, the government is still where new technologies are developed and tested, but, now under presidential order, the government is sharing its lessons learned and technologies, Consequently, the private sector is now in a much better position to address security and mass notification challenges.

The flood of new security technology into the marketplace has raised the capabilities of mass notification exponentially. New products and systems are hitting the market every day. They’re smarter, faster, smaller, and less expensive than ever before, and thanks to our mass media sophistication, more people know about new technologies in a shorter period of time.

Complementing this proliferation of mass notification technology are consumers with real-world needs. The university president wants an immediate security solution to publicize to the parents who have selected a safe learning environment for their child. The CEO of a private company seeks the same quick-fix solution to protect the people who work on a corporate campus, whether it’s a single building in one location, multiple buildings in a complex, or facilities spread across the country or around the world.

It’s a perfect storm, especially in light of recent events on campuses. The consumer has a need; the industry has a solution. A typical question consumers ask is: “If I have a limited budget for mass notification, what’s the one system I should spend it on?”

A good answer is: “Before investing in hardware, find a good consultant capable of guiding you through the entire mass notification process and can show you how to leverage the technology that you already own.” But in many cases, the top campus official is still intrigued with finding the “magic” system that will guarantee a horrific event will not occur on their campus.

The most popular approach to this type of instant notification solution on campuses today is the digital text messaging system. The well-founded theory behind it is that all students are mobile and they carry cell phones. So, in the event of an emergency, campus officials simply send mass notification instructions as text messages to the students’ cell phones. While such systems are great in theory, and can be successful in many instances, they have some holes. For example, a major natural disaster might knock out the digital system or the electrical power necessary to run it offline. Or the college/university may only be successful in signing up 20% to 30% of the students for the text-messaging service. What about the other 70% to 80% of the students? Or, what if the message recipients are in locations where their cell phones must be turned off, such as a lecture hall, or students are engaged in a sports activity?

Essentially, effective mass notification is not a singular system; it’s a process that involves leveraging and integrating many, if not all, of the monitoring, communications, and control systems in a campus. The sidebar at left provides a list of technologies that may need to be integrated in an effective mass notification system.

Five-step design process

Achieving an effective, efficient mass notification capability on a campus requires comprehensive preparation and precise execution. Here are five steps to help understand the processes from design through activation.

Step 1:Assess the threats

Every campus situation is different. A rural campus in Kansas might be more vulnerable to violent tornadoes than a campus located in downtown Chicago where the major threat could be drug-related security breaches from surrounding neighborhoods. Both campuses may need to take precautions against disturbed or disgruntled students or staff members.

Campus officials won’t be in a position to design intelligent mass communications response until they analyze the vulnerabilities and threats unique to their campuses. This analysis must take into consideration what events could possibly happen and how they rank in probability of occurrence from most likely to least likely.

According to a recent public safety survey, these are the major identified threats and the percentage of public safety officials who ranked each one the top threat:

Natural disasters %%MDASSML%% 65%

Drug trafficking or drug possession %%MDASSML%% 11%

Non-drug related crimes %%MDASSML%% 10%

Terrorist attacks %%MDASSML%% 7%

Fires %%MDASSML%% 2%

In addition to identifying and ranking the threats, you need to assess when (time of day, time of year, special dates) and where (specific office, building, or facility) an event could take place. Creating worst-case scenarios for each threat is a good way to begin getting a handle on the mass notification challenge a campus is facing. Because no one has a crystal ball, this exercise is highly subjective, yet very necessary, in the mass notification design process.

Step 2: Investigate the infrastructure

Most campus officials assume they need to start from scratch when it comes to the procuring the hardware and software necessary for mass notification systems. However, many of the pieces are already in place. What generally is missing is an overview of how the campus operates on a daily basis, if these critical systems are interoperable, and how they can be integrated and re-tasked during an emergency to serve a mass notification command and control function.

In most cases, four different types of systems already will be installed on a modern campus: life safety (fire, gas, and smoke detection; alarm; and sprinkler systems), security (surveillance, access control, and intrusion monitoring systems), building automation (HVAC), and communications (voice and data systems).

Typically, each of the four system categories falls under a separate jurisdiction. For example, the campus police are responsible for providing the security command center, and they oversee the selection and purchase of any type of security system hardware or software. They also may be responsible for the life safety function, or there could be a separate campus fire protection department in charge. Building automation is most often the domain of a facilities management group, while information technology (IT) and communications falls under yet another autonomous group.

These groups tend to function separately as a silos. Each has a separate chain of command, along with their own unique objectives, procedures, and dedicated budgets. Ensuring that their systems are compatible with other groups’ systems is not a high priority for any of the groups, and they tend to compete for dollars and human resources.

This is not an ideal situation when the objective is to build a seamless, effective, campus-wide mass notification system. That’s why this important investigation step must be taken unilaterally. A designer needs to know which systems can be used as part of the mass notification infrastructure, which must be upgraded or removed, and what new technologies must added.

In addition, you’ll want to factor in the creation of a central command center dedicated to integrating all the incoming information and outgoing messages. The security command center, if it exists in proper form, can serve as the central command center for emergency event management. The key to effective management of any emergency situation is having situational awareness of the event. In other words, you need to have visual and informational knowledge of what’s taking place in real time. This is critical in a mass notification process where decisions involving people movement must be made in minutes or seconds, not hours.

Step 3: Design and implement the mass notification system

Once you’ve completed the investigation step, you now know what improvements or additions must be made to your infrastructure and where these enhancements are most critically required in order to achieve total system integration and interoperability. Since very few campuses can afford to do everything at one time, you’ll want to create a phased implementation plan, complete with budget estimates and detailed specifications for every system.

The implementation plan will enable you to compare and obtain competitive bids from leading hardware and software suppliers. Once the bids have been awarded and the construction begun, you’ll no doubt require the services of a security consultant able to provide on-site project and construction management. The consultant should also be qualified to oversee the testing and commissioning of the life safety, security, communications, and IT systems, and be able to assist in obtaining the necessary code approvals.

The implementation phase also includes training on the systems. This not only involves the people who operate and maintain the systems, but also the people who populate the campus and must respond properly. The system training should be a part of your overall emergency response training program.

Step 4: Create an emergency response plan

The emergency response plan is the single most important part of the mass notification process. You’ve identified the threats to your campus, created worst-case scenarios, evaluated your systems, and identified the hardware and software issues you need to address. Now it’s time to create a blueprint for how the mass notification process will function in an actual emergency.

The emergency response plan identifies your mass notification response team and assigns responsibilities. It determines what messages will be sent in specific situations, and where people will be instructed to go and by what routes. It details evacuation plans and provides for signage to guide campus occupants to safety. The emergency response plan further explains how an emergency response team will be trained, and it lays out methods for implementing training activities with different simulated emergency scenarios. It also focuses on the cooperation and synergy required from local government, fire, police, medical, and disaster recovery personnel, and provides a methodology for accomplishing a total response to any type of crisis.

Following the incidents at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008, many states are in the process of enacting laws requiring that higher learning institutions develop an emergency response plan and annually have it reviewed by a qualified third-party auditor.

Step 5: Test your operational readiness

In the oil and gas processing industry, they call it keeping their processes “evergreen.” In other words, things change and so must your mass notification process. A campus is a growing, evolving community, from a structural, operational, and human standpoint. Therefore, it is necessary to regularly conduct periodic tests and evaluations of not only your mass notification process, but also your sub-systems, procedures, and emergency response actions.

Keeping America’s campuses secure and their occupants safe is a monumental task, not without setbacks. No matter how prepared a campus is and regardless of how well-trained and vigilant the members of the emergency response team are, incidents can and will happen that take lives and cause injuries. But the frequency and severity of these events can and will be mitigated through proper application of mass notification technology.

Author Information

Sako is chairman of the board for Sako & Associates Inc., Chicago, and senior vice president for Rolf Jensen & Assocs. Inc., Chicago.

Mass notification interfaces

Provide intelligible voice communications via loudspeakers that also may interface to:

• Voice evacuation systems

• Visible signal systems

• Telephone systems

• Cell phones and pagers

• Radios and wireless devices

• Digital video/graphic signage systems

• Computer pop-ups

• Text messaging

• Other communication methods.

Mass notification integration

• Leverage all existing infrastructure and wired, wireless, and networked technologies on campus

• Interconnect different types of new and legacy systems into a “unified notification system”

• Interconnect systems and equipment from different manufacturers together

• Interconnect at a hardware and/or software level

• In reality, existing equipment can’t be thrown away to buy new, state-of-the-art items, so use what you have on hand

• Require various interfaces that are managed by software to serve as the “glue” to hold the alerting systems and make them work together

• Include “bridges” to allow signal routing and interface with various campus VHF/UHF/CB radio systems

• Include “gateways” to allow signal routing, interface, and integration with various fire, security, and monitoring systems.

Systems could include:

• Life-safety voice evacuation systems, as may be approved and sanctioned under NFPA 72 and approved by the authority having jurisdiction

• LAN/WAN IT networks

• Local public address systems

• Wireless systems such as cell phones, pagers, PDAs, etc.

• Any other wide-area resource.

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