An excerpt from Security Director News

School notification and security systems seem to be a popular topic once again. It is sad that this topic rises to the surface after an incident like the Sandy Hook Elementary School incident. All schools, universities, campuses, etc. should have proper security in place. A great article from Security Director News below indicates just how important it is to have the proper security measures in place before it’s too late.

College University and School Security

Mass Notification on College & University Campuses Evolve 

Colleges and universities have come a long way since they rushed to get mass notification systems in place after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 that left 32 dead and 17 wounded.  In the past six years, mass notification has evolved from one or more disparate systems to fully integrated systems, experts told Security Director News.

That’s not to say that all campuses have integrated emergency notification systems. Many, especially smaller sites and community colleges, still have rudimentary systems.

What is mass notification? While some groups, such as the National Fire Protection Association, have worked to define and make recommendations about mass notification systems, no universally accepted definition of mass notification exists, or is legislated at this point.

Technically, someone standing on the quad with a bullhorn qualifies as mass notification, the experts said.

School University Campus

Dave Bujak, emergency management coordinator at Florida State University and a nationally known expert in campus mass notification systems, believes there does not need be one standard for mass notification systems.

FSU, with more than 40,000 students, last year activated an “easy button” mass notification system, which is acclaimed by campus security professionals as one of the most aggressive systems in the country.

Bujak defines mass notification as the ability to communicate to everyone related to a campus: students, faculty, staff, fans, “the FedEx guy,” vendors, contractors, neighboring retailers and churches and myriad others. It is up to the institution to decide how to do that successfully. “Not everybody needs the easy button,” he said.

Like FSU, larger schools, in addition to installing other upgrades, have added visual warnings and social media to their mass notification systems, said Berkly Trumbo, national business manager for higher education at Siemens. He works with 800 to 900 campuses per year.

“So philosophically now we’ve gotten the outside warning, the inside warning and then the personal device warning, which creates a 360 as far as our messaging capability,” Trumbo said.

“There’s where the technology chasm occurs. They say we have all this stuff, how do we make it streamlined? That’s the trend now being more broadly adopted,” he said.

Siemens’ Defined MNS/ECS Maturity Model has five levels. The first is rudimentary—a non-layered approach consisting of a single voice system or Web-based alerting technology. The fifth is holistic—an integrated, multi-modal approach with five or more notification layers integrated into a central activation solution/portal.

According to a Siemens survey, 84 percent of campuses were at levels 1-3 last year. Some, however, have recently moved up to level 5. For its model, Siemens engaged a third-party research agency to examine documentation, such as Clery Act reports, and to interview a sample of colleges and universities of all sizes. The Clery Act requires colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to disclose information about crime on and near their campuses.

FSU’s holistic system, developed with Siemens, has 32 layers that cover everything from “run and take cover” to public service announcements, Bujak said. The urgency of the message determines its delivery level, from flashing lights and sirens to Facebook updates.

On the smaller end, Texas Christian University, with 8,000 students, recently installed a mass notification system that includes speakers inside and outside every building. It also includes texting and emailing capabilities.

Like Texas Christian, many campuses have installed or upgraded their systems in the past year or two, said Bryan Crum, vice president of communication for Omnilert, parent company of e2Campus, which offers a unified interactive security suite. The package includes the means to send and receive text messages, sets up an immediate and secure conference call among leadership during a crisis and provides a hot line and other emergency measures.

Crum is getting new universities signed up every week, some of which had been relying on “home-grown systems.”

“Five years ago, the concern was text messaging,” Crum said. “They would find some system to send mass text messages, they would have their IT person send a mass email, they would tell their public relations person to update Twitter or Facebook and their own websites. There were all these different departments updating their own communications, and in many cases the text messaging part was not fulfilling their expectations, mostly because a lot of the text messaging systems out there aren’t made for the volume of text messaging that needs to happen immediately.”

These schools would have an event, use their different systems, and people would complain that they didn’t get the message, or that it took too long or they got too many, Crum said. They’ve learned their lesson and have decided the most prudent approach is to outsource, he said.

Technologies such as digital signs, computer desktop pop-up alerts and wireless alert beacons for classrooms have been there all along, Crum said, but campuses now realize that integrating them into one system provides greater efficiency.

“There used to be so many protocols involved, so much bureaucracy. But now the police chief can send out an alert from his cellphone and override all other systems,” he said.

Campus security professionals also have realized that sirens, once used only for weather emergencies, can be a forceful notification tool in other types of dangerous situations.

Reply-to-text alerts, helpful because recipients can ask, for instance, which exit is the safest to take, are available, as is a text tip line for students and staff to post concerns about a suspicious package, person or event on campus. Also, cloud-hosted emergency notification systems can be accessed from anywhere in a number of ways, Crum said. “The system never goes down,” so those affected can download emergency messages to double-check if needed, he said.

Although most campuses have some sort of notification system in place, they might be fooling themselves in thinking they’re secure, Trumbo said.

“Everybody believes they’ve at least ‘checked the box,’ ” he said. “And that mentality in and of itself is a dangerous one. When you’re having a safety conversation, you don’t want to just ‘check the box,’ you want to make sure it’s right.”

Community colleges, in particular, are “woefully underfunded” when it comes to security, Trumbo said.  “And they have a fairly transient population and a turnover in students” that would suggest they need strident security, he said. “That bothers me.”

On the flip side, Jack Poole, principal and owner of Kansas-based Poole Fire Protection, said that one of the challenges in outfitting campuses with mass notification systems is “knowing how much is enough.”

“That’s truly what it boils down to. And when there’s an event, the jury will say what is or isn’t,” he said.