Virginia Tech Conducts Test Of Emergency Notification System

This month, Virginia Tech conducted the first campus-wide test of its emergency mass notification system since installing visual alerting displays. During the multi-modal test, Virginia Tech instantly communicated to the vast majority of its campus community with Inova Solution’s OnAlert LED displays, while other modes of communication, such as SMS/text and e-mail messages, took up to 20 minutes to deliver messages.

“A college campus is like a small city, so it’s important to have multiple communication channels,” said Larry Hincker, Virginia Tech’s associate vice president for University Relations, explaining that Virginia Tech has more than 29,000 full-time students and 1,300 full-time instructors.

With the largest full-time student population in Virginia, the main campus includes more than 130 buildings, 2,600 acres, and an airport.

Supplementing audio alerts with visual alerts helps ensure a comprehensive mass notification program. Failure to use multi-modal systems can result in ineffective or incomplete crisis communications because:

  • Most cell phone towers are ill-equipped to handle a spike of incoming and outgoing communication traffic as a result of an emergency situation. In some cases, this can delay message transmission by up to two hours.
  • Large academic buildings are notorious for poor mobile device coverage. In some cases, the use of mobile devices is even prohibited during lectures.

As demonstrated by the tragedy at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, the intensity and frequency of campus violence and other disasters has increased in recent years, prompting law enforcement and emergency management personnel to develop more sophisticated campus security and mass notification strategies.

Virginia Tech’s previous emergency response plan included e-mail and SMS/text messaging, but critical “soft spots” limited the reach in captive spaces, such as classrooms and hallways.

Virginia Tech thoroughly researched alternative modes of communication, concluding that some are unreliable or excessively costly, such as PA systems. In August, Virginia Tech selected OnAlert displays as part of its “VT Alerts” mass notification plan.

Comprised of a variety of methods, VT Alerts includes a mix of SMS/text messaging to mobile devices, calls to home, office, or mobile phone numbers, e-mail notification and LED displays.

The system cycles through all points of contact for a recipient until confirmation of receipt is received. For example, students may rank their top three preferred methods, and VT Alerts will use the preferred, quickest method of delivery.

The benefit of augmenting a broad-reaching delivery mechanism with LED displays is threefold:

  • In emergency situations, students, faculty and staff without ready access to mobile or networked devices will receive instant notification.
  • LED displays can be powered by an organization’s own network through PoE technology, using consolidated, uninterruptible power supplies.
  • LED displays counteract wireless delays by providing instant notification.

When an important message is posted to the LED boards, a brief audible tone and message color indicates urgency. Virginia Tech installed more than 200 OnAlert LED displays in general assignment classrooms and other high-traffic locations. Full deployment of the displays was completed within 60 days of the purchase decision. Additional message boards are under consideration.

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