Schools seek ‘easy button’ approach to mass notification systems

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting incident, colleges and universities in the United States and Canada rushed to implement more robust mass notification systems to better communicate with students and staff in times of emergency.

Initially, those systems sent text messages, emails and automated phone calls. But they were often slow and clunky, susceptible to failure or dependent on unreliable platforms, such as an overburdened local cellular network, according to experts who spoke to Security Director News, the sister publication of Security Systems News, for this story.

Over the years, as money became available, schools invested in their mass notification systems, adding layers of communication that ensure redundancy on top of their existing systems, such as digital signage in classrooms and meeting areas, outdoor and indoor sirens, and social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.

However, more robust mass notification systems have created their own challenges, according to Berkly Trumbo, a national business manager for enterprise solutions and an emergency management specialist at Siemens. Schools added layers to their mass notification systems “without having a road map,” Trumbo said, which has led to problems integrating them all into one solution.

While the need for multiple layers is very real, the reality is that the more non-integrated layers there are, the longer it takes to send an alert, according to Dave Bujak, emergency management coordinator at Florida State University. Imagine having to open multiple user interfaces to activate each layer. Shaving time off that process is a major trend in colleges and universities, Bujak told SDN: "Because when seconds mean the difference between life and death, you can't afford minutes to issue warnings."

Reducing the time it takes to activate its mass notification system is the driver behind Florida State University's "easy-button project," which it has been developing with Siemens for the past two years, Bujak said. The project is "days away" from its launch, Bujak said in late January.

FSU is among the country's most aggressive schools when it comes to developing an integrated mass notification system, Bujak said. The school now identifies 32 layers as part of its system. (To compare, FSU had six layers at the time of the Virginia Tech shooting.) Those 32 layers are broken down into 10 "primary" modes of contact, including the FSU website, desktop alerts, emails, text messages and indoor and outdoor sirens; nine "secondary" modes of contact, which include Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, FSU's mobile app, and voice messages; and 13 "tertiary" modes of communication, such as "television media" and "word of mouth."

When the school has conducted surveys following tests or legitimate uses of its mass notification system, Bujak said the responses to the question about which delivery method the student or faculty member received first are across the board. "No one system truly dominates," he said, highlighting the need for a multi-layered approach. "There's a Catch-22 to that—the more systems you have, the longer it takes to activate them."

In a best-case scenario, such as when Bujak is sitting at his desk getting reports of a tornado warning and wants to activate the school's mass notification system, it would take him about 10 minutes to utilize all 19 primary and secondary layers, he estimated. The new “easy button”—literally a box with eight buttons, one per scenario—that would be placed with the campus police dispatchers would allow for a one-click solution. "Two years ago I would push buttons in 10 minutes with full delivery in an hour," Bujak said. "Now, within days, I will be able to push a button in five seconds and have delivery in three minutes."

The new "easy button" system is built on top of FSU's existing infrastructure, which was a project requirement, Bujak said. He looked at many options for an integrated mass notification system, but many required FSU to flush its existing systems and build from scratch, something he refused to do. Since the new "easy button" solution is built on top of FSU's existing infrastructure, if it fails Bujak will still have the manual activation method to fall back on.
  Many schools will be watching what happens at FSU. "The desire to be there is universal, and while we're one of the first, I can name off dozens of schools who are intimately watching this project and close to slapping down money and signing contracts," Bujak said.

Beyond mass notification systems, the large schools (25,000 students and more) will look to integrate all safety and security elements—mass notification, surveillance cameras and access control—into one "total campus safety and security solution … for enterprise-level situational awareness," according to Trumbo. "That's the true tip of the spear—where everything is evolving toward," he said. "It doesn't change the culture of the university from the student perspective, but it gives safety and security folks a lot more command and control, real-time actionable intelligence and situational awareness."