Timely warnings

     The first day of any college class is an introduction. The instructor goes over the syllabus and gives students an idea of what they're going to learn. For Dennis Potter, a retired captain turned professor, the first day of class is also a day to prioritize safety.

     "We go over evacuation plans, what students should or should not do if something happens," says Potter, who teaches Criminal Justice Administrative Behavior at Metropolitan State College in Denver.

     One way he prioritizes safety is by requiring students to have their cell phones on during class (on vibrate). Potter was a lieutenant with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and a first responder at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and themselves.

     "I know through experience that if students have their cell phones and they all go off at the same time, something is wrong," he says.

     The Clery Act, amended in August 2008, requires institutions of higher education that participate in the federal student financial aid program to provide students and employees with timely warnings of crimes that represent a threat to their safety. Colleges and universities use many different vended solutions to send out warnings. K-12 schools also benefit from the use of emergency notification systems, especially as technology continues to advance and best practices for putting these systems to work get even better.

'Parents are our customers'

     Peter Pochowski, executive director of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers, says, "Communicating to our K-12 parents is critical. In a sense, parents are our customers; their children are in our schools."

     Notification systems, which can send out phone calls, text messages or e-mail, provide a good initial contact in an emergency.

     If a TV station reports there's a fire at a school, that school can instantly get 500 to 1,000 phone calls. Notification systems help eliminate many of those calls by delivering from hundreds to thousands of messages to parents' phones in minutes. For example, a message can report that the children are safe and emergency responders have controlled the situation, or that the school is being evacuated and parents will need to pick up their children at an alternative location. Typically a message will say more information will be made available on TV or radio.

     Notification systems are important to the success of the school, and impact parental trust and confidence, Pochowski says. "Without communication, there's always a suspicion that 'You didn't tell us this because you're afraid of something' or 'You're hiding something,'" he says. "The more you communicate, the more open you are; the more transparency there is in the schools, the better."

Keeping contacts current

     One of the problems with using phone numbers to deliver a message is that numbers change frequently. Pochowski has been in some school districts where 25 percent of kids' parents have had new phone numbers by the end of the first month of the school year.

     Many parents don't have landline phones, and some have only throw-away phones. CTIA-The Wireless Association reports 270.3 million people, or 87 percent of the U.S. population, were wireless subscribers and 17.5 percent had wireless-only households at the end of 2008. "It's very difficult for schools to keep a current list of phone numbers," Pochowski says.

     The University of Iowa (UI) tackled this problem by entering UI's entire directory of phone and e-mail contacts into its Hawk Alert database and requiring people who did not want to receive the alerts to opt out. Asking people to opt out instead of opt in made a huge difference, says Mark Katsouros, UI director of telecommunication and network services. Katsouros, along with E. Michael Staman and Richard Hach, wrote about UI's experience in "The Multi-Dimensional Nature of Emergency Communications Management," which was published in the January/February 2009 issue of EDUCAUSE Review.

     "A lot of people were fearful of giving us their mobile number because they were afraid the numbers might be shared outside the university," Katsouros says, noting cell phone numbers are personal and not subject to open records requests. Some people still choose to opt out because they don't want to pay for text messages about tornadoes, for example.

     More than anything, collecting contact information to get a hold of people in an emergency is more about overcoming a mindset than it is about legal issues, says Andreas Demidont, vice president of educational programs and services for the consulting and training firm SERAPH. He adds that at the high school level, there are already a variety of communication levels that can tie a parent into virtually every aspect of a child's life.

College vs. K-12

     A key difference between colleges and K-12 is college students are adults, and colleges don't make calls to students' parents. Some of the technology issues associated with reaching tech-savvy college students can also differ.

     With students arriving on campus from different directions and at different times during the day, Potter says, "An emergency notification [will] only reach a minority of students. But even if you reach some of the student population, you reduce a target-rich environment."

     He says it makes sense for universities to permit students to have their phones on in class if the school's emergency notification system uses cell phones. Otherwise, when police try to notify students that an armed gunman is in the hallway and heading toward their classroom, they won't be able to because the cell phones are turned off.

Getting the message

     How to get the messages out so that people can access them in real-time is a challenge. If students or parents haven't turned their cell phone on, they're going to miss it. The inability to power the devices would also render them useless. Like Reverse 911, Potter says the technology is only successful if the message is received.

     Researching what solutions worked and what had not, the Steering Committee of EDUCASE Net@EDU Converged Communications Working Group sent a survey to select colleges and universities. Twenty percent of the 125 institutions responded. Participants said one potential solution is using audio alerts with voice capabilities, such as outdoor or indoor sirens or paging systems. Other solutions included e-mail, calling trees, Web sites, texting, campus radio and TV, voice-mail and calls to legacy landline and cell phones. Interestingly enough, audio alerts were not included in response to what solutions did not work well.

     Staman, Katsouros and Hach, writing about the survey and case study, say several important success factors were identified from the research. "Technical and operational considerations should focus on:

  • Implementing multimodal techniques
  • Realizing to what extent solutions and services can operate in converged networked environments
  • Understanding and improving infrastructure constraints."

Policy and protocol

     The hardest part of putting together the Hawk Alert System after Iowa City was struck by a severe storm on April 13, 2006, was not the technology, Katsouros says, but developing policy and procedures.

     "You can't just throw technology at a problem and expect it to solve the problem," he says. Through his research, Katsouros found that best practices for notification systems are still evolving. But one lesson he's learned is law enforcement needs to work with it's central IT provider to utilize the best technology.

     Before the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, Katsouros says there wasn't a lot of concerted work being done in the area of notification systems for schools, but now there is. While it's true that no single notification mechanism will reach everyone, he says developments are still needed that would allow solutions to interoperate. He points specifically to protocols like CAP (Common Alerting Protocol) and EDXL (Emergency Data Exchange Language) being established.

     UI emergency notification solutions include a calling tree, text messaging, e-mail, tower-based sirens, digital signs and social networking (a pilot solution). The university is working to create a front-end "dashboard" application, so a message can be entered once and be delivered into multiple backend message delivery systems.

Understanding chaos

     When someone hasn't experienced a shooting or a natural disaster, the emotion in the midst of a crisis often isn't easily understood. "I believe people think when you have an emergency, you pick up the phone, dial a number and press send," Katsouros says. "I don't think they've thought through the chaos that occurs in an emergency."

     He recommends doing as much as possible before an emergency, whether it's prerecording a message or part of a message, or creating preapproved message templates for various scenarios. UI's Hawk Alert uses "blended" messages that combine a prerecorded introduction from the police chief and text-to-speech enunciation and templates for various scenarios.

The near future

     Demidont predicts that within six months to a year U.S. notification systems at universities will be tied to multifunction cell phones that can serve as a secure ID, panic device, control building entry, provide computer access and allow instantaneous lockdown. In addition to security features, he says phones will let students do things like charge food to debit cards and check out library books. His prediction is based on the technology already being used in Europe.

     In the past, school security systems have focused on protecting the physical assets of a school. Demidont says today the focus has shifted to protecting human assets.

Keeping the phones on

     In Potter's classroom, if students have an exam and Potter is concerned students will be tempted to text one another, he will have students turn off their phones — and he'll pay closer attention to who's coming down the hallway. "It's my responsibility if something happens to these students," he says.

     And it's a responsibility schools and law enforcement, with new practices and notification system technology, share every day.

     Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.