Saving Lives

Saving Lives

Campus notification systems create the potential to save lives

Information is key during a campus emergency. Injuries and damages from events, such as active shooters, fires, chemical spills and severe weather, can soar if a campus lacks a proper emergency notification system (ENS). An ENS cannot eliminate risk, but it can warn students and staff, providing them with the up-to-the-minute information they need to best react to dangerous situations. Emergency notification systems are a musthave item for all campuses.

Simultaneously, alerting thousands of people takes a multi-faceted, network-centric approach. Alerts may include text messaging, social media posts and email, along with audio alerts from speakers throughout the facilities. Newer software programs allow these messages to be sent from almost any internet-connected device with the use of encrypted credentials.

Consider these important features, which should be part of any emergency notification system:

  • Not only does the messaging need to be redundant, appearing on multiple channels and platforms, the system itself must reside on multiple servers in the case of a data center failure.
  • The system must be scalable to accommodate growth, both in the number of participants and physical growth of a facility.
  • An ENS must have the ability to quickly and accurately update contact information. There should be portals for students and staff to easily update their data. And that data should be frequently backed up and protected against cyberattacks.

There is no single system that can handle the emergency notification needs of potentially tens of thousands of people on a campus, spanning hundreds of acres. Before adding or updating an ENS, have an experienced security professional conduct a thorough risk assessment. It will help identify the strengths and weaknesses of any current systems and help to focus spending on those areas where improvement is most needed.

Fire systems. A campus’ fire alarm system can be used for much more than smoke- and fire-related events. These systems are often first in line for alerting people to emergency events using text messages, email blasts, sirens, speakers and strobe lights. The area served by a fire alarm system may encompass a single building or an entire campus.

The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization, has created more than 300 codes and standards, which are often adopted by states, cities and campuses around the world. The NFPA 72 standard outlines codes for installation, maintenance and testing of fire alarm systems as well as addressing requirements for emergency notification systems. The system’s ability to broadcast voice or text messages is vital. Why? Because it is most people’s natural inclination to flee after hearing a siren.

A good example was the 2018 shooting at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 students and three staff members dead. The shooter had pulled the fire alarm box to lure students out of the classrooms. Within seconds a school staff member initiated a code red lockdown. The contradictory alarms led to mass confusion. NFPA 72, adopted in 2019, now allows emergency notification messages to supersede all other alarms.

Speaker arrays. High-power speaker arrays are a great way to share outdoor emergency information on larger campuses. The tower-mounted speakers can deliver intelligible live and pre-recorded messages at distances of up to a quarter of a mile or more, depending upon topography. The speakers can be mounted for omni-directional and directional coverage.

A few properly placed arrays may be enough to cover even the largest campuses. In addition to providing emergency instructions, these speakers can be used for crowd control at special events. The voice component can also be used in conjunction with sirens used to gain people’s attention.

Intercoms. Intercom-based emergency stations are used primarily to gain assistance during an emergency. Since they enable twoway conversation, these stations are technically considered emergency communications systems. Station speakers are not a match for a speaker array system, but they can provide an additional source of emergency instructions. People can report realtime events directly to campus security, shortening response times. Embedded cameras provide additional views of an area to help staff make better dispatch decisions.

Stations can be mounted directly to a building, such as a dormitory, and are ideal for use in parking garages, stairwells and elevator bays. Embedded in a tower, they can be placed virtually anywhere outdoors and are easily recognized by a bright blue light atop each unit.

They are easy to set up and connect to a campus network using CAT-5e/6 cable, which also enables them to draw power over the Ethernet. Stations are on and available 24/7 and require no POTS lines, saving monthly phone costs. Available smartphone apps enable security staff to maintain access to stations while on patrol.

Audio intercoms, already in place in many campus buildings, provide information to people who are indoors during an emergency. Powered horns and speakers can be used to extend an intercom’s range to include entries, courtyards, playgrounds and other outdoor areas.

Phone apps. The proliferation of smartphones on campus led to the development of hundreds of emergency apps, many developed for a specific site with campus maps and contact information. Campus administrators may use the apps to contact people with text, voice and email messages. They can also be used to contact people prior to arriving at the campus, alerting them to an emergency and advising them to stay away until the situation has been resolved. They also are used to contact security during an emergency.

However, only people who have enrolled in the system database and downloaded the app can use the solution. This may eliminate many students, employees and visitors. There are some other potential downsides to the apps.

Weather, topography and the proximity of cellular towers can affect signal quality. Remote areas on some large campuses may lack cellular coverage. Phones are of no use if the battery is dead and they can also be difficult to remove from a pocket, purse or backpack if a person is fleeing an emergency.

Electronic signs. Electronic LED signs at major pedestrian and vehicular entries can warn people to stay away. Placing them at strategic sites around campus is another way of reaching people, particularly those with hearing difficulties. Solar panels can help power the signs even during a campus blackout.

Drones. Drones are most often thought of for their ability to capture impressive aerial video. However, emerging technology is taking emergency notification systems to new levels with the use of UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) and UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) drones.

Aerial drones may provide emergency responders with an overview of the situation and assist them in dispatching UGVs into potentially perilous situations without putting additional people in danger.

Both aerial and ground drones can establish bi-directional communications and provide survival kits for people trapped by events. Drones can act as mobile sirens and, if equipped with speakers, may share voice information over small areas at a time. Aerial drones can hover over remote areas to provide instant 4G mobile coverage so people can receive smartphone text and voice messages. But before investing in drones for emergency notification purposes, be sure to check on local regulations regarding their use to ensure they will not interfere with other public agency UAS units.

Notification services. Some larger college and university campuses use private services that alert top administrators to emergency situations while they are off campus. The services monitor tweets and news posts from government agencies, media organizations and other sources to identify situations that may put administrators at risk.

Alerts may even include traffic reports, flight delays and other nonemergency information. Subjects are tracked via their smartphone’s GPS system.

Other tips. Assign roles for campus staff and then conduct regular drills to train members on the proper use of the emergency notification systems. Assign specific roles for each person and have backups trained in case a primary contact becomes unavailable. Test all equipment often to ensure it will be properly working when needed.

Work closely with local first responders and media. Police officers, firefighters and paramedics will handle an active situation and care for any injuries. When regularly updated, the media can help inform relatives, friends and others of the need to stay away from the campus until the emergency has abated.

There is no one system for all campus emergency notification needs. But a wellplanned and implemented notification system using multiple communication methods may reduce property damage, limit injuries and prevent deaths during an emergency situation.

This article originally appeared in the January / February 2020 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

Digital Edition