Timely warnings

Emergency notification system best practices and technologies continue to graduate


     "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.

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