On Alert

George Mason University installs emergency communications portal

Students at Washington, D.C.’s prestigious George Mason University pass their years with plenty to worry about.

Margaret Adkins, a 2008 graduate of the university’s law program, serves as a good example of the busy George Mason student. Over the course of the three-year program, Adkins took up to six classes a semester. She estimates that she spent about six to 12 hours a week per class studying.

Clearly, students like Adkins have enough on their minds without having to worry about security. But today, the safety of university students is a paramount concern. That’s why George Mason recently installed a new emergency alert solution on campus to back up its existing communications systems.

Stepped-up Security
When planning for emergency situations, universities must take into account possible communication problems, such as overloaded cell networks, as well as logistical issues, including the ability to reach everyone. George Mason addressed these issues head-on by selecting ALERT FM, a personal alert and messaging system, from Global Security Systems, a system integrator, service provider and manufacturer of homeland security and natural disaster systems headquartered in Jackson, Miss. George Mason is the first university to install the ALERT FM solution.

“George Mason already had SMS and e-mail emergency notification in place, but we were looking for multiple layers due to the vulnerability of SMS and email,” said Keith Bushey, George Mason vice president of special projects. “The ALERT FM system was affordable and provided an infrastructure that was already in place—taking a burden off of us. We’re in total control—even down to registering and programming the receivers for the end user.”

ALERT FM enables state and local government, universities and private sector officials to create and send emergency alerts and messages, such as tornado warnings, homeland security notices, hurricane evacuation instructions, utility notices, plant or school closings, employee notifications and even traffic alerts. First responders, school officials and citizens can receive alerts and messages through ALERT FM receivers or any device equipped with a standard FM chip. More than 10 million people in six states have access to ALERT FM technology.

To further strengthen emergency communication on the campus, George Mason also purchased ALERT FM receivers, USB receivers and wall receivers. The ALERT FM receivers and USB receivers are portable devices capable of receiving emergency alerts and messages. The ALERT FM wall receivers are designed for stationary mount in public locations, such as libraries, dorms or classroom hallways.

Reliable and Redundant
George Mason is clearly an institution that takes security seriously. Adkins, who was signed up for the school’s SMS alert service, said she was reassured to know she would be notified immediately if anything happened.

“I felt very secure,” she said. “I never really thought about security, and there were never any issues.”

And in the university’s continued effort for security from all angles, the new ALERT FM system fills in any gaps.

“The redundancy of the FM transmitters chosen to broadcast ALERT FM messages is what makes the system reliable enough for use on a large college campus,” said Jim Lowery, GSS general manager. “It delivers messages using the data subcarrier of local FM radio stations, and we always choose a minimum of two local stations in case there is an issue with the primary station. Also, this technology is not affected by telephone network capacity issues or power outages, which might occur during an emergency situation.”

Lowery explained that in an emergency situation, George Mason security officials would access ALERT FM via a secure, Web-based portal to send an alert or message. The portal allows authorized administrators to create messages and select what receivers should receive them. Administrators can send urgent messages, delivered in about six seconds, or general messages, which can take up to 60 seconds to be delivered.

In the broad wake of the Virginia Tech shootings last year, George Mason’s thorough system will give students, staff and professors peace of mind.

“A reliable and redundant emergency communication system is essential for colleges and universities,” Lowery said. “Campus-wide notification has always been a concern of university administrators and security officials, but in recent years, this concern has been elevated based on high-profile events. The safety of students, faculty and staff is a priority, and campus-wide notification can help keep these groups safe and informed.”

Expanded Applications
GSS continues to upgrade its emergency communications solution. The company recently added SMS and e-mail capabilities to the ALERT FM system, giving users multiple paths to mass notification.

This fall, Hinds Community College, the largest community college in Mississippi—with six campuses spread over three counties—will become one of the first colleges in the nation to use the new SMS and e-mail capabilities, as well as FM radio-based messages, to communicate with its students, faculty and staff during emergency situations.

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