In Mass Notification, the Medium Really is the Message
You know a security technology is popular when Congress creates a grant program specific for its purchase and when people in the street complain when it is not used.
Welcome to the growing world of mass notification, technology and procedures often employed during emergencies to get the word out to people who need to know about the situation and what to do next. While the beginnings of mass notification seem to have been phone trees and bullhorns, the most recent generation is smart, electronic and carries messages over myriad means of communications.
The latter is the key to effectiveness. Not everyone is home to answer a Reverse 911 call. Some cell phones are turned off. E-mails may not be opened immediately. Instant Messages may not work for everyone. A voice may not be heard by all or by those with hearing impairments.
The elements of the most common mass notification system are rather simple.
There is a centralized database of people and their “addresses” for the purpose of getting an emergency message through. The database could be partitioned by the type of person, location, special needs or in other ways. Or the database could really be links to a group of databases held elsewhere by different departments or locations.
There is a centralized command, really an authorized individual or limited group of individuals who can send out prerecorded messages or customized messages to any or all the various lists.
Message delivery also is diverse: text messaging, e-mails, PDAs, sirens, flashing strobes, intercom, outdoor emergency phones, computer screen displays, cell and landline phones and live or recorded voice announcements, as examples.
Whether standalone or networked, at the heart of most mass notification systems is specialized software. And, while schools, universities, healthcare campuses, cities, law enforcement, utilities and the military have naturally embraced such systems, all types of enterprises can use them for better emergency and disaster management. In addition, security or other enterprise departments can use these systems to distribute non-emergency messages, too. That is typical in college and university settings where the system also broadcasts breaking news of interest to students, for example.
FEDERAL GRANTS COMING
Congress, thanks to special interest involvement, has caught the mass notification bug. Within this summer’s reauthorization of the massive Higher Education Act, which expired in July, the U.S. House of Representatives requires colleges to “immediately notify” their students and employees when an emergency happens on campus. It is expected that the U.S. Senate will concur and that, when legislation goes to the President, he will sign the reauthorization into law.
“As recent incidents have demonstrated, minutes can mean the difference between life and death,” said Jonathan Kassa, the Security on Campus (SOC) executive director. “We called on Congress to strengthen provisions for warning campuses and are very pleased that immediate warnings during life-threatening emergencies will be required. This helps ensure that information is communicated, empowering students and employees so that they can take steps to protect themselves during a crisis.”
As part of the House provisions, it established a grant program to improve emergency notification as well as other security capabilities of colleges.
Among those lobbying for the mass notification grants was SOC, which worked to secure passage of the Jeanne Clery Act, known more officially as the Student Right to Know and Campus Security Act, in 1990. Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered in her college campus dorm room after the perpetrator entered through a propped open door. Her parents established the organization.
Students, parents, teachers and college instructors have already caught onto the need and effectiveness of mass notification systems. So much so that some complain when the system is not activated when they believe it should have been.
For example, there was a controversy swirling at the of earlier this summer when the University’s Department of Emergency Management decided not to employee mass notification or what the campus calls its TXT-U service to tell students about an ongoing police manhunt at , an off-campus commercial and residential neighborhood which also houses many UM students. Officials told the campus newspaper that “a text message wasn’t sent out due to a lack of information about the suspect and because the incident didn’t represent a threat to the campus.” Still, that same newspaper article quoted sophomore Angela Schloffer, who said she had her house searched by police with assault rifles drawn and a K-9 unit. “If they’re searching your house, there must be a problem,” Schloffer said.
Terry Cook, director of emergency management at the University, felt strongly that he did not want to overuse the mass notification system, fearing a “crying wolf” potential. About 15,000 students subscribe to TXT-U, which is for on campus, not next-to-campus events. Wireless Emergency Notification System operates the message service.
DISTRIBUTED SPEAKER DESIGNS
For many security executives, the key to successful notification is the spoken word. Specific instructions for a particular situation can be the most effective method to insure everyone knows exactly where to go and what to do.
For example, campus public address products from GAI-Tronics get the message to the masses via a distributed speaker system design. The intent of a distributed speaker system is to evenly distribute the broadcasted audio at a more comfortable level intended for people/students local to the active speaker (within 1,000 feet). This approach limits the impact of notification on surrounding communities and conflicting sound ordinances.
Such assemblies, intended for new system installations, require both two-way communications and one-way public address broadcasting. In some models, a nine-foot high stanchion can provide up to 360° broadcast coverage. Such technology can be accessed from a 600 Ohm audio input, RF radio system (VHF/UHF), or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) input. Two-way communications is via traditional telephone lines, RF radio operation or VoIP telephones.
Many emergency telephone stanchions including the GAI-Tronics unit can retrofit for public address in emergencies needs while addressable amplified speakers discretely installed can handle courtyard and inside needs. Direct and solar power options give this speaker location flexibility. It is completely self-contained and is accessible from the same audio source driving the stanchion broadcast products.
Such an approach – thanks to head-end gear – permits integration and deskset control with diverse audio and visual messages and alarms.
Other campus-oriented emergency telephones systems from sources such as Talk-a-Phone and Code Blue can add on a public address feature to broadcast through all the stanchions.
Mass communications can spring from these emergency phone and intercom systems and integrate to send messages and initiate door lockdowns automatically.
LYNN’S WALL UNITS
For instance, , the private educational institution in Boca Raton, , squeezed mass notification from an existing communications system. A 123-acre campus, is proud of its reputation as one of the safest campuses in the nation. A current Stentofon communication system installed at consists of an AlphaCom M exchange, master station and wall units. Emergency wall units with intercom and blue strobe lights are mounted to poles in parking areas and located at all building entrances throughout campus. If an emergency takes place or assistance is needed, a call is placed to the central command center by pressing a button on the unit. A central command area dedicated to integrating all incoming information and outgoing messages is essential and serves as the center for emergency event management. The key to effective management of any emergency is having positional awareness of the event -- you need to have communication and visual knowledge of what’s taking place. This is critical in a mass notification process where decisions involving people movement must be made in minutes or seconds, not hours.
According to campus security and its technology source, an effective and reliable campus mass notification system is imperative to the safety and security of students, staff and faculty. Such a system must have a means to:
- Provide an alert to the campus population as quickly as possible;
- Alert and inform campus residents in multiple areas; and
- Provide communications under conditions such as a downed telephone service.
The administrative and security officials have caught a wave they find effective.
AN AUDIO VISUAL APPROACH
Earlier this year, of at San Antonio (UTSA) selected Cooper Notification’s WAVES (Wireless Audio Visual Emergency System) mass notification system for its outdoor campus emergency notification system. Through the technology, campus public safety officials can broadcast targeted voice alerts via what the vendor calls a “Giant Voice” to students, faculty, staff and visitors.
To be installed are four WAVES high power speaker arrays (HPSAs), those “Giant Voices,” on the UTSA’s campus for exterior voice alerting, providing emergency notification to the 600-acre academic campus. In an emergency, the HPSAs broadcast a siren alert, followed by a live or recorded voice message tailored to the situation. The intrusive system sends out the emergency messages in real-time and has the capability of alerting the entire campus or individual areas depending on the scope of the emergency.
“UTSA is building a rigorous, multi-layered and multifaceted notification system,” said Donovan Agans, UTSA director of business continuity and emergency management. “Because of the broadcast range of the ‘Giant Voice,’ the intelligibility of the messages and the intrusiveness of the system, it is the right choice.
The HPSAs function as an integral component of the total system. which controlled by an integrated base station (IBS). It issues commands and provides data messages to the transceivers, relaying messages to the HPSAs. The system will be integrated into existing voice-alert fire alarms inside buildings and wirelessly activated from the IBS. As additional buildings are equipped with voice-alert fire alarms, they will also be integrated with the system.
The campus will have remote access to the mass notification system through the technology’s Web Connect, allowing regional control capability as well, permitting the campus public safety officials to view the status of the mass notification system and trigger pre-recorded messages through an Internet connection off-campus or from anywhere other than the primary IBS. For regional control capability, Web Connect will also allow UTSA to communicate simultaneously to multiple campuses with the same technology.
To prepare UTSA and surrounding communities for system testing, the university worked with apartment complexes, neighborhood associations, businesses, media outlets, the San Antonio Office of Emergency Management and other officials to provide information on the new system and an installation and testing timetable.
UTSA serves the metropolitan area and the broader region of South Texas from three campuses, including the 1604 Campus, the Downtown Campus and UTSA’s of
Some enterprises are taking a “do-it-yourself” approach, especial large universities with more sophisticated in-house IT operation.
STUDENTS PAY FOR SMS CHARGES
One service, WiscAlerts-Text, University of Wisc.-Madison’s new emergency text-messaging service, has over 10,000 subscribers since May.
The service has attracted steady interest from students, faculty and staff. “The campus community has responded quickly and positively to WiscAlerts-Text,” said Lt. Michael Newton of UW’s Police Department.
One key difference between WiscAlerts-Text and text-messaging systems at other universities is that UW-Madison has relied on users to “opt-in” to use the service. In addition to the campus community, the service is also being offered to employees of UW-Madison-based campus affiliates, such as UW Hospital and Clinics, UW System administration, UW Foundation, the Wisconsin Alumni Association, UW-Extension and Colleges, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, UW Medical Foundation and campus consultants. Employees of those affiliates must have a valid Net ID to participate.
WiscAlerts-Text is “kind of” free since users will be responsible for normal short messaging service charges from their cellular providers. Once participants have registered a 10-digit mobile phone number, they receive a confirmation message indicating they have successfully subscribed.
The university also uses mass e-mails, voicemail, reverse 911 phone calls, Facebook and various UW-Madison Web sites to send out emergency notifications.
Mass notification news also was recently made at the U.S. Department of Defense when in added the application to its United Facilities Criteria or UFC.
So, for the first time, the UFC incorporated a list of specifications for network-centric alerting solutions as part of its criteria for mass notification systems. While the network-centric specifications are not yet defined as mandatory, they are provided as guidance for DoD agencies.
Its posting will also influence private use of mass notification.
The UFC committee saw a clear role for network-centric alerting systems as part of an overall mass notification strategy, stating in the report that, “Text notification via wireless devices and desktop computer notification are effective means for delivering mass notification messages to multiple recipient groups.” The criteria later states, “Desktop notification is particularly effective when more complex information must be conveyed, and can be a cost-effective interim solution prior to installing an individual building mass notification system.” By formalizing the recommendation and requesting draft specification feedback, the DoD took a first step in a process that commonly results in making a capability a mandatory standard.
“The DoD has led the adoption of network-based emergency alerting systems, beginning to deploy them as early as 2004. In fact, more than 130 DoD facilities already use AtHoc IWSAlerts to protect approximately one million people,” said Guy Miasnik of the vendor source. “Though some of the individual military services already have regulations in place requiring network alerting functionality, the newly amended UFC raises the importance of network-centric alerting and signals maturation of the market. It also paves the way for wide adoption of this capability across the DoD.”
According to William Sako, chairman of Sako & Associates, Inc. and a senior vice president of Rolf Jensen & Associates, “The UFC committee has done a great job adapting mass notification requirements to embrace modern IP network technologies. Their guidance will impact the DoD and other government and commercial organizations requiring emergency alerting systems. For example, the UFC impacts standards for organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association.
See a sidebar elsewhere in this article for specific DoD recommendations.
HEARING IMPAIRED HELP
But what about the hearing impaired?
There have been some technology breakthroughs. For instance, Twenty First Century Communications (TFCC) confirmed that its hosted Software as a Service notification system can provide TDD/TTY delivery of emergency notification and messages without pre-registration. This leap in safety and security enables hearing impaired populations -- people who are deaf, deaf-blind, hard of hearing or have a speech disability -- to be treated equally and to receive alerts at the same time as the general public or with more limited groups of people. TFCC engineers modified software and procedures to both detect TTY machines and deliver TTY messages, without the need of a relay operator.
SIDEBAR: Responders Talk on Different “Lines”
When public and private agencies respond to crisis and emergency situations, often they talk on communications systems that do not easily work or share information and voice messages with each other.
The Kentucky State Police has solved that problem with a critical communications system that enables interoperability for law enforcement first responders.
The system (Federal Signal SmartMSG) will help the law enforcement agency enhance public safety and security by rapidly alerting the Special Response Team, HazMat Team, Canine Units and Hazardous Device Technicians through voice alerts or text messages to cell phones.
The critical communications system provides a comprehensive interoperability solution: Disparate warning systems, including different brands and models and different frequencies, can be bridged by simply docking radios into the mobile command and control unit or stationary unit. With it, communications equipment is linked to enable first responders to seamlessly collaborate on-scene during mission-critical events.
SIDEBAR: International Emergency Messaging About Olympics
A handful of Fortune 500 firms contracted with an emergency alerting service during the Beijing Olympics.
Send Word Now Emergency Notification Service Helps Fortune 500 Customers Prepare for
With heightened security risks at this year’s summer Olympics, national and multinational corporations relied on international two-way SMS capabilities (Send Word Now) to rapidly communicate with overseas employees during daily operational tasks and, in the event of an emergency, to quickly and effectively coordinate and evacuate their employees and manage their assets.
These firms were corporate sponsors of the Olympics and had hundreds to thousands of employees in , as well as millions of dollars in assets in the form of promotional materials and computer equipment. Using the alerting service, these organizations could notify thousands of people in minutes, as well as track responses from message recipients in real-time for virtual head counts.
SIDEBAR: DoD’s Specific Recommendations
UFC 4-021-01 recommends adopting network-centric systems to supplement and manage existing alerting capabilities already deployed as part of facilities’ mass notification systems. The UFC outlines the value of network-based alerting for reaching all IP-connected devices such as computers, personal digital assistants, landline phones, cell phones and email while also triggering traditional notification systems such as giant voice and outdoor warning systems. It also highlights the role network-centric solutions can play in managing the entire notification process, including:
Unifying alert activation through a single Web-based console to deliver alerts across multiple delivery platforms such as computers, telephones, SMS/text messaging, email and giant voice/PA systems
Targeting recipients based on location, job function, distribution lists and more.
Tracking and reporting on alert delivery and responses for each alert and recipient.
Managing users including integrating with directories such as LDAP and Active Directory.
Serving an individual facility or scaling to multi-facility, geographically-dispersed organizations such as major commands.
Interoperating with and monitoring external sensors including third-party sources of emergency events.
The full UFC can be found at http://www.wbdg.org/ccb/DOD/UFC/ufc_4_021_01.pdf, and the section that references network-centric alerting systems is located on page 84 of the PDF.