Need for security mass notification in higher education

Need for security mass notification in higher education

Deadly violence on university campuses is an unfortunate reality. Less than one month into 2014, 3 reported incidents of gun violence were reported in the U.S. — 2 of the incidents lead to 2 deaths. However, deadly attacks are not limited to gun violence — a stabbing attack in 2013 left 14 injured at Lone Star College–CyFair in Texas, U.S.

In the aftermath of the violent shooting at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, which tragically resulted in the deaths of 33 people, campus safety was thrust into the spotlight. In 2012, Virginia Tech was fined $27,500 by the US Department of Education (DOE) for failure to issue a timely warning on campus the morning of the shooting in compliance with the Cleary Act. In January 2014, the DOE fined Virginia Tech an additional $5,000 for the incident. Immediately after the Virginia Tech tragedy, many universities invested in mass notification systems. However, Dan Pascale, CPP, Senior Director of Security & Emergency Services at Margolis Healy & Associates, notes that mass notification systems have not evolved much since then. Pascale explained that despite the initial rush to acquire mass notification systems, the ability to use them and integrate them with other forms of technology such as SMS, telephone, email, outdoor warning systems, internal public address systems, digital signage, etc. has not made any significant leaps. “I think we're going to see more integration and a need for it in the near immediate future as colleges and universities struggle with having the responsibility to make timely warnings and emergency notifications to their community,” said Pascale. The next step, however, is figuring out how to do it and how to accomplish it at an affordable price.

One of the most publicized and successful mass notification integration projects was done by Florida State University (FSU). FSU already had an emergency notification system in place — “FSU Alert” boasted 32 different methods of emergency communication delivery, which include but are not limited to outdoor warning sirens, indoor warning sirens, SMS text messaging, E-mails, strobe lights, digital signage, desktop alerts, and social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc); however, management of all these different systems was a challenge. Although the multitude of systems was meant to cover a wide variety of pre-approved scenarios, a delay in notification was occurring because there were too many systems to fuddle through.

In order to streamline the system, FSU sought a solution that would enhance and integrate with their existing system. In cooperation with Siemens, who configured the central activation system, FSU was able to consolidate the 19 primary and secondary delivery technologies of the FSU Alert System so that they could be activated from a single point. Located in the FSU police department's communications office, a box with a panel of pre-scripted scenario buttons allows personnel to send out the appropriate notification with the press of one button. Known as the “EZ” button, this one button mass notification system has cut down message delivery time to less than three minutes. The FSU “EZ” button has since become a prime example for both universities and the security industry.

Retrofitting for the Future
Based on a survey of 616 projects, CP&M reported that 12.9 percent of the $1.3 billion spent on renovations in 2012 was spent on security equipment. More specifically, a survey on what types of renovations and upgrades US residence halls were considering in the next 3 to 5 years showed that 43 % were considering adding and/or upgrading their camera/surveillance systems, 36 % were considering the same for their access control systems, and 27 % their sprinkler/fire alarm systems. However, it was also noted that the extent of new and upgraded systems has been stunted due to budgetary restrictions. In addition to monetary challenges, retrofitting buildings on college campuses can be a complicated task. Oftentimes colleges are forced to retrofit older and sometimes historic buildings that are hundreds of years old, according to Pascale. “In many cases, it can cost anywhere from two to five times the cost of initial construction. With limited budgets, due diligence is critical as it's important to get it right the first time.”

Another difficulty with retrofit projects is that they frequently involve older buildings that are less likely to have the advanced technological capabilities needed for newer technology. “In a way, new projects are easier to scope out and deploy since the ideal architecture is designed from scratch. Most cases, however, are retrofits which demand an assessment of current technology, the remaining lifespan of such and the true benefit they might still provide,” said Lawrence de Guzman, Director of Global Sales Operations, Verticals, OEM, and Key Accounts at Milestone Systems.

Open Systems and Integration
The importance of integration has been a hot topic in the security industry and the education sector is joining in on the conversation. “We see a need and attempt by many institutions to integrate disparate systems and leverage technology as a force multiplier while creating operational efficiencies,” Pascale pointed out. “In many cases, individual departments have installed their own systems and there is little centralization or standardization.” However, facilities of all kinds hit a speed bump when trying to find compatible systems. That is why open systems are playing a key role in integration.

“There is a distinct trend towards open platforms, which enables beneficial integrations with other systems, thereby empowering a total solution into more than just the sum of its parts,” said de Guzman. In particular to higher education, Mike Scirica, VP of Marketing and Sales at WavestoreUSA noted, “Campus security officials seek VMS platforms that easily integrate with other security and non-security systems, such as video analytics. An open architecture approach and a commitment to open standards help manufacturers deliver VMS platforms that will be able to work with other systems as organizational and security needs grow.”

Rising up to Challenges
Every vertical has its own set of unique challenges and requirements. In order to properly and successfully address these issues, it is important for manufacturers and systems integrators to work together. “We believe integrators and manufacturers should act as partners with a common goal of establishing trust with an end user,” said Kim Loy, VP of Global Marketing and Chief Product Officer at DVTEL. “At the same time, integrators should rely on their manufacturers to play a valuable support role to help them assess and respond to customer expectations. Customer satisfaction depends on the best efforts of everyone involved in a system sale.”

Related articles:
Higher education strengthens security
Security in higher education faces unique challenges

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