Raising the Alarm

In response to the Virginia Tech massacre in April of 2007, Congress enacted laws requiring colleges and universities to deploy mass notification systems and develop policies and procedures for their use. Specifically, the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires schools to notify the campus community of an emergency that poses a threat to the health or safety of students and employees.

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act), first signed into law in 1990, requires colleges and universities to publish and distribute a Campus Security Report to students, prospective students, and employees every year. Congress amended the act in 2008 to require the Annual Security Report to include a policy statement about emergency response and evacuation procedures. The statement must discuss procedures developed and systems deployed to communicate with the community.

The Clery Act amendments also require schools to inform students and staff about emergency response and evacuation procedures and to test those procedures at least once a year.

Mass notification systems come in different sizes and flavors that can be tailored to the needs of small and large campuses.

Take a look at three different systems deployed on different campuses: GateWay Community College in Phoenix uses a fire alarm system with a voice public address system as well as a network-based mass notification system; Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, PA, uses a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) mass notification system managed by a third party; and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has deployed a system capable of communicating with tens of thousands of people in minutes.

GateWay’s Way
In 2003, GateWay Community College in Phoenix began a major security and fire and life-safety upgrade on its seven-building, 30-acre campus. The work included re-keying certain doors, adding a card-key access system, and replacing analog CCTV with a digital system.

The last step, a new fire alarm with a voice mass notification system, is currently undergoing final inspections by the fire marshal, says Charlie Poure, GateWay’s facilities director.

GateWay’s fire alarm system had evolved unevenly over the years. When a new building went up, the latest technology fire alarm went in. With the completion of the seventh building, the campus had seven different fire alarm systems — all proprietary and expensive to repair, with several verging on obsolescence.

Poure asked Aidant Fire & Security, a distributer and integrator based in Scottsdale, AZ, to propose an integrated campus-wide fire alarm system.
Poure specified a hardened system. “If I lost a building with server rooms,” he says, “we had no backup communications. I wanted the new system to have 24-hour emergency back up power.”

Aidant recommended a Gamewell-FCI system from Northford, CT-based Honeywell Life Safety.

The system includes well over 500 sensor speaker-strobes positioned throughout each of the seven campus buildings. Each sensor can emit an alarm tone. Each features a loudspeaker that projects voice messages. For the hearing impaired, the sensors have strobes that emit pulses of light.

“The system is networked via our fiber optic backbone,” Poure says. “Every panel communicates with every other panel. I can make live and recorded voice announcements over all of the speakers, from any of the panels and from the security center.”

To supplement the voice notification system, GateWay’s IT department has installed a network-based mass notification system that sends out e-mail, voice messages, and texts to the campus community. The system includes 60-in. flat screens in the lobby of each building. The campus security department or IT can put emergency messages up on each of the screens whenever necessary.

Poure calls the system an emergency notification tripod, consisting of the fire alarm tone and strobe lights, the voice notification capability, and the IT department’s mass notification system.

Gettysburg Sends Word
At Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, PA, Public Safety Director William Lafferty uses a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) system called Send Word Now to notify faculty and students across the 200-acre residential campus serving 2,600 students.

Authorized users can access the system from any computer with a Web browser. “We use red laptop computers with all of our emergency response plans and notification messages,” Lafferty says. “It takes one click to activate Send Word Now, a siren, our emergency Website, and to send an emergency message over the campus-wide television network.”

Send Word Now issues e-mail, phone, text, and pager messages to everyone signed up on the system. “We require contact information from students at registration,” Lafferty says. “Nearly 100 percent of our students are on the system. About 70 percent of our faculty and staff have signed up now.”

When called upon, Send Word Now will send e-mail, text messages, and voice messages to everyone that has enrolled and report the number of messages received. “The system might report that 3,000 messages were sent and all but one was received — here’s the number,” explains Lafferty. “When we send text messages, if a phone won’t receive a text message, the system converts the text to voice.”

Gettysburg upgraded its fire alarm systems several years ago. The new system provides voice notification capability over a centrally located outdoor public address speaker.

The Public Safety Department briefs incoming students as well as new faculty and staff members on the system and posts notices in common areas across campus. “We go over evacuation, shelter-in-place, and other emergency response procedures,” Lafferty says.

The Public Safety department tests Send Word Now and the other components of the emergency notification system regularly. A test begins with an e-mail that notifies the community that a test will occur. Next comes the emergency notification message itself. Finally, a message signals the end of the test and asks for feedback, especially from those who didn’t receive the Send Word Now messages. “Feedback helps us find problems and address them,” Lafferty says.

BruinAlert for UCLA
Approximately 60,000 students, faculty, and staff live and work on the UCLA campus, which spans 419 acres and more than 174 buildings.

Up until 2008, the campus emergency notification system relied on separate alerting systems, including a siren, public address system, bulk e-mail, a toll-free number, an AM radio station, a cable television station, and an emergency Website.

In 2008, UCLA enhanced that system with IWSAlerts, an enterprise-wide mass notification software application from AtHoc, Inc., in San Mateo, CA. The application transforms an IP network and network-connected devices into an emergency notification system, says David Edgar, director of operations — federal civilian for AtHoc.

Dubbed BruinAlert by UCLA officials, the Web-accessible system sends voice alerts to mobile and landline telephones. It also sends text messages and e-mail. It activates the campus sirens and puts messages up on the campus cable television and radio station. It communicates directly with network-connected Mac and Windows computers and with California’s Emergency Digital Information System (EDIS).

A redundant fail-safe system located off-campus can be brought online if the primary system goes down.

“BruinAlert contains a unique software module that integrates with multiple UCLA user repositories to import user contact details and distribution lists,” Edgar says.

The module searches University databases daily to update contact information, continues Edgar.

Not long after BruinAlert was installed, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Los Angeles. Within minutes, the system sent alerts to more than 48,000 people reporting the earthquake, warning of aftershocks, and directing people to the campus radio station for instructions.

“The earthquake was the first real-life use of the campus’ network-centric emergency alerting system,” says Edgar. “With a reach of more than 97 percent of the campus population, the system successfully alerted nearly 50,000 people in minutes.”

The mass notification mandates in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 and the amendments to the Clery Act set off a flurry of activity in the mass notification industry. New systems have been developed and existing systems have been refined. If you’re not satisfied with your system, you won’t need to look far to find one that will suit the specific needs of your campus.

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