Reports of violence at schools are making headlines at an alarming rate. With dangerous events erupting on college campuses around the country, more and more parents are evaluating campus safety in addition to academic and sports programs before deciding on which school to entrust their children. It’s an extraordinarily important question that no one was asking 10 years ago, and school administrators are now becoming increasingly committed to providing answers. Their commitment to safety and communications infrastructure made college campuses an ideal environment to confirm the speed and reliability of a new type of emergency alert system.
Right now, several universities nationwide are participating in a pilot program designed to test a new state-of-the-art emergency alert system that will form an integral part of campus safety programs. The system, designed by IntelliGuard Systems, LLC, provides simultaneous emergency notification in less than 20 seconds to a campus population and area law enforcement via dedicated messaging devices. The system is a revolutionary advancement of micro technology that far surpasses the most current wireless technology when it comes to emergency communication. Most universities currently employ third-party hosted alert systems that rely on phone, text and email messaging. These systems are subject to delays, access, network overload, crashing and hacking issues. Operating on a dedicated FCC-licensed network, the advanced messaging technology being tested in this program has overcome these shortfalls to provide a higher level of safety. Notably, the system simplifies a university’s emergency notification process by providing seamless communication and integration between existing alert systems, campus police and local law enforcement.
The technology employed in this immediate notification system and messaging devices is already aiding over one million first responders and other emergency personnel nationwide. IntelliGuard sought to adapt systems designed for hospitals and firehouses to meet the specific needs and challenges of a campus population. While the technology is tried and true, the pilot program was necessary to get real-life input into the system’s application in an environment that is not comprised solely of safety professionals.
At each school, IntelliGuard works with select students, faculty, administrators and campus police to test several components of the system. The RAVENAlert Keychain, which emits a loud audible alert and vibration upon receipt of an emergency message, guides students, faculty and staff out of harm’s way. Scattering across campus, dozens of participants were provided a keychain that weighs less than an ounce and is about two and a quarter inches long. The RAVENAlert Wall Unit, mounted in all classrooms and critical locations, flashes a red light with audible alarm and a backlit text message that gets converted to speech. The third component is digital signage for high-traffic public venues, such as a stadium, library or cafeteria. One of the most important aspects of this technology is that it interconnects with existing third-party systems and provides an “easy button” for dispatchers working in an extremely stressful situation. Third-party hosted systems currently require the dispatcher to go through a series of more complicated steps to finally post an emergency message to various parties. This new technology is activated by a one-touch action that notifies the entire campus population as well as geo-targeted locations in less than 20 seconds.
Input from law enforcement has shown that that their main concern is to keep students from entering the hot zone during an emergency. The faster students can be redirected, the easier it is to protect them. However, there are serious gaps in communication systems schools currently employ. First, third-party hosted systems rely on a cell phone, smart phone, or computer to be on to receive emergency notification, however, faculty usually instruct students to turn their devices off or on silent during class. Further, once the general public becomes aware of an emergency, these types of communication systems often become overloaded with increased network traffic. Public systems are actually built to impede widespread messaging and may interpret a general alert message as commercial spam. The fact that the alert message is going out in a linear sequence aggravates the overload situation. Communication is further complicated if the emergency is city-wide, involving more than just the college population. While messages can be launched, there is no guarantee when they are delivered if the network is overloaded. Because the new technology operates on a dedicated network that is not in the public domain and the signal goes out immediately as a wave for any number of “always on” units to receive simultaneously, the incidence of delays, denied access, network overload, crashing or hacking that often plagues typical campus alert systems is a non-issue.
The new keychains and wall units being tested on college campuses not only guarantee immediate message receipt, but also follow-up messaging to control student movement while the situation is developing—the key concern of law enforcement. During the pilot tests, four emergency messages and follow-up directions were received simultaneously within 14 seconds by all participants during a 15-minute test period, with the dispatcher employing one-touch technology. Campus safety personnel confirmed the critical nature of follow-up information can only be successfully managed with technology that delivers emergency messages immediately and simultaneously.
The pilot test revealed the importance of involving more than campus safety personnel in the implementation of an emergency alert system. Facilities management, IT and student deans must work together to be sure the system meets the unique needs of the university and interfaces seamlessly with first responders. Thus, a critical facet of the pilot program was also to tap the expertise of local law enforcement. Some of their concerns include the ability to distribute information immediately, whatever the situation. There are seven primary types of emergencies that law enforcement prepare for: fire and explosions; power outages; large-scale accidents, including the release of toxic materials; natural disasters; violence such as rape, assault or terrorist activities; bomb threat and lockdown; and an armed assailant or hostage situation. In each situation, getting in touch with key leaders outside the law enforcement community is crucial to containing the situation. For example, if there’s a spill in the chemistry building, the campus dispatcher needs to press only one button to notify local police, then point and click on the chemistry building to alert those inside as well as key faculty and area HAZMAT experts. The core idea of this new system is to make the dispatcher’s job as turn-key as possible to marshal forces and address any situation without delay.
Emergencies are rarely static. Their repercussions overflow into multiple environments, necessitating minute-by-minute response from safety professionals. With thousands of students circulating through hundreds of classrooms, a closed, protected and dedicated emergency communication system with a combination of both fixed and mobile alert devices is the next step in every college’s readiness program. One of the most telling outcomes of IntelliGuard’s pilot program was the response from the students, themselves. Test participants were thoroughly engaged in the process, which speaks volumes about their concern about campus safety. The effectiveness of any emergency system increases exponentially if it is embraced by the very people it is trying to help.