Get the Word Out

In terms of security, one only needs to be reminded of the horror at Virginia Tech in 2007 when a gunman opened fire on unsuspecting students and faculty to know that campus safety and protection of students, professors, and personnel take precedence over everything else. And while it’s easy for a group of experts to talk about security topics in a closed-door meeting, ensuring the safety of an entire campus with multiple buildings spread out over a large area is an entirely different matter. Notifying a large number of people in a severely limited amount of time about an emergency situation can seem almost impossible. Yet, that’s where technology comes in, and such technology isn’t just allowing for the communication of an important message to be made easier. It can end up saving lives.

Voice communications, two-way radios, and digital signage are all being utilized by American colleges in different capacities for security purposes. In terms of voice communications, calls can be placed to 911 operators or other emergency personnel for assistance. Also, emergency notifications can be transmitted to any phone or mobile device using a voice message, email, or text alert. Two-way radios, which are often considered a low-cost solution, are used by campus security officials during emergency situations, for reporting incidents, and for getting and receiving critical information. Digital signs, which project images to display content, can be quickly updated so as to provide up-to-the minute information during critical incidents.

It is important to note, too, that all of these technologies can serve multiple purposes. That’s an ideal thing to consider when implementing, because the schools using these technologies can receive the maximum bang for every buck that they are spending.

Two-Way Radios

It is often expected that when an incident occurs, the best product to use to call for help or assistance is a cell phone, but actually, that’s not the case. Cell phones can fail, and it takes precious seconds to dial a number or scroll through the contacts in a list to find the right person for help. Also, cell phones only allow the user to make contact with one person. Two-way radios provide a wealth of great features for a college to utilize, especially in terms of security.

Two-way radios allow for quicker operations and instant access during a crisis. The radios are equipped with buttons, so that all it takes is one push for the user to be in contact with the university’s security force, police, maintenance personnel, or other individuals. The radios allow for people to converse immediately with other individuals, including groups of other people. Security buttons on the radios can be set up ahead of time to connect to a dispatcher, a local police department, or another entity so that in the case of an emergency, one push makes the connection.

“Many times, in an emergency, a person will need to speak to multiple individuals at once,” says Keith Kemmerline, system architect for Motorola Solutions. “In this case, a two-way radio enables communication with an entire security team, whereas a cell phone will only let someone call one individual at a time. Cell phones also cannot handle the heavy load when people use them during an incident. Many times, cell service is unavailable due to the high volume of people using their phones. That’s not the case with two-way radios, which operate on the 800 MHz frequency band.”

In addition to security, Motorola Solutions’ two-way radios have been used in other capacities. Various parties can be kept up-to-date during a Saturday afternoon football game, graduation exercises, or just about any other event that draws thousands of spectators and fans to campus. Communication for crowd control, parking, and vendors is at the touch of a button — by way of the radio. The same goes for a maintenance crew. Individuals can be notified with seconds — whether high winds have toppled a tree or a boiler has started to leak — so that the situation can be rectified.

Voice Communications

Comcast Business offers its Business VoiceEdge hosted PBX solution, which provides classic phone and voice attributes coupled with advanced features like voicemail-to-email integration. Business VoiceEdge, which is cloud-based, contains a dedicated voice and video network included with its service at no additional cost. “This is a great offering for the higher education market, because it unifies calling with dialing throughout each building and the entire campus while offering high-quality voice calling capabilities for professors and security officers who aren’t behind a desk when making their calls,” says Caitlin Clark-Zigmond, senior director, product management at Comcast Business.

Obviously, Business VoiceEdge can be used during an incident to place a call for assistance or to contact authorities by dialing 911. If there is a power outage, broadband outage, or a natural disaster, incoming phone calls can be routed to a pre-determined location. That means that even if the power goes out, calls will not be lost, and instead the Call Forwarding Not Reachable feature is utilized.

For Unified Communications customers, two benefits to Business VoiceEdge are the use of the Comcast Softphone, which is a desktop application that enables a user’s computer or laptop to behave much as a standard telephone would. In addition, Business VoiceEdge offers mobility and allows users to access their desk phone from their mobile. These features are beneficial for people on the go and not just for someone who is moving around campus. The Comcast Softphone and Be Anywhere feature ensures that a phone is never far away.

Digital Signage

The use of digital signs during a safety incident or for disaster preparedness plans is ideal for various market sectors, but especially for higher education, due to the extended reach to large numbers of people across multiple buildings and locations. Digital signage consists of screens placed throughout a campus that instantly update with important information. These signs can be located both inside and outside of buildings to ensure that as many people as possible see the messages.

There are several notable features attributed to digital signage. First, these signs alert those individuals who are hearing-impaired. Secondly, messages can be in bold colors and flashing lights to attract attention. Scala is just one of the vendors offering digital signage offerings to the higher education market, and a key benefit to using its software is its ability to be CAP (Common Alerting Protocol) compliant. CAP ensures that a warning message is displayed on various alert systems simultaneously during an incident.

Aside from security purposes, digital signage serves higher education in other ways. Visit any college campus and you’ll see many students and faculty members wearing jackets, t-shirts, and other clothing splashed with the collegiate name — and not just during a key sports season. That school spirit can carry over to every major spot on campus with digital signage. Students and faculty members can stay informed about the latest school and local news with updated messages on these signs. Sports scores, campus activities, fitness class schedules and sports practices, cafeteria menus, and weather conditions are just a few of the messages that digital signage can provide. The information is constantly changing and dynamic as to the needs of the school itself.

Considerations for Campuses

In emergencies, everyone hopes for the best, but the best can only occur with thorough plans in place and streamlined ahead of time to ensure the most positive of outcomes. Technology helps with that final outcome through various features and capabilities, making it possible to notify large masses of people quickly. Efficient methods of notification have resulted in many lives being saved during critical incidents. It’s no longer a knock on a door to warn of danger. Since colleges and universities don’t always have a lot of money at their disposal, it helps to know that the technologies that are aiding in security tasks can also be used for a variety of other purposes. 

Karen Spring has been a technical writer for more than 10 years. She contributes to a weekly newsletter that highlights network and Internet security topics.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of College Planning & Management.

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