Seven-Layer Saftey

Emergency notification systems and the confusion surrounding them

     Alerts or "timely warnings" are only required to be "triggered when the school considers a crime to pose an ongoing 'threat to students and employees.'" These alerts, as described in the Jeanne Clery Act, are limited to its seven crime categories.

     "Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities must make timely notices," comments Tom Turner, director of campus safety at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. "But the federal government doesn't define what timely is. We need to look at what is the public perception of 'timely notice' using the technologies available today."

     In reference to a timely response, "What happens if there is not much information to say?" asks Burke. "Would it be best to spend those first minutes trying to stop the threat or trying to figure out what our message will be?"

A layered approach

     The technology of an emergency notification system can consist of a single service or an array of technologies to reach the largest population possible. The ideal system would be able to connect to everyone concerned, wherever they are, at the same time. The target audience would then have the necessary information for law enforcement to accurately and effectively respond to the event — an active shooter situation, a substantial vehicle accident, inclement weather, etc. — and keep the public safe.

     Both Burke and Turner agree, a system is never going to get 100-percent notification. "It would be lucky to get 80 to 85 percent of a campus community notified," says Turner.

     As technology advances, the medium of an emergency notification message evolves as well. The technology broadens the emergency notification system to many characteristics such as, but not limited to, e-mail, computer pop-up alerts, mobile (cell phone, PDA, etc.) text message, digital signs, indoor/outdoor speaker voice message, telephone voice message and sirens.

     If each type of technology was considered a layer, one layer cannot reach everybody in a timely manner. Layering the technology together can broaden the message's reach to the public and inform more people of the what, where and what next.

     An e-mail-based system sends out a broadcast to every intended e-mail address. "It sends everyone on campus an e-mail, and within a minute, it will come up on their screen," says Turner. "But if a portion of the campus isn't in front of their computer, or doesn't have e-mail forwarded to their mobile, they aren't going to get it."

     People check their e-mail at different rates. People may check only once a day, once a week or often enough it seems they may live at their desk. "Some people are going to be able to see their e-mail, some their cell phone, some can be contacted through their office phone with a telephone auto-dialer and some could be in audible distance of a loud speaker," comments Geoff Kohl, editor-in-chief of, a Web-portal and news provider for the security industry and its security directors and security installers across the country. "Unfortunately, there is no one silver bullet technology to fulfill every possible factor."

     Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, is looking at combining a low-tech technology with a high-tech system. "A low-tech siren system could alert people to go to a more high-tech e-mail or text system for the emergency message," says Anthony Callisto, chief of public safety at Syracuse University.

     Aside from the near-standard e-mail, popular text messaging and common siren technologies, other emergency notification system components can include:

  • A computer pop-up alert;
  • A digital sign;
  • An indoor/outdoor loudspeaker voice message; and
  • A telephone voice message.

     "The key is to get the message out there," adds Kohl.

Choosing an intersection of layers

     Considering the toolbox of options and the constant question of "what tool works best," every institution's solution could be as different as its own architecture.

     "You want to have a system where you can tailor your audience to the situation," suggests Burke. "Whether it's geographic or audience selective, the advantage comes from the ability to hone in on the target audience."

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