Tipping Points

A new crime-fighting tool capitalizes on the primacy of texting

In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007, and, specifically, the critical fallout from the university’s communication failures in the hours following the first gunshots, campuses across the nation were put on alert and forced into a type of self-reflection: What if it would have happened here? Are we any better prepared?

Many of those who weren’t went about trying to get that way. By 2009, according to a survey conducted by the National Campus Safety and Security Project, about 58 percent of all college and university administrators were saying their institutions had an emergency communication system in place. And that percentage has since risen.

With every campus incident that has followed -- or even natural event, such as the so-called “Snowmageddon” in February of this year, when a massive snowstorm disrupted the routines of colleges and businesses all along the East Coast -- administrators have been forced to ask the same questions, and increasingly those who have found their campuses wanting have turned to providers to help them make sure they’re better prepared the next time.

Today, a large majority of campuses have at least some type of action plan, but the sophistication of the communication systems in place varies widely.

And variety is exactly what separates the top-tier systems from those more basic. The more endpoints or channels of communication a system can reach, the more effective it is likely to be when a situation arises.

Channel Surfing
According to the NCSSP survey, of those campuses that had emergency message communication systems in place in 2009, about 95 percent were e-mail based. Roughly 75 percent were text or instant-messaging based, and about 60 percent relied on telephone networks.

All of the above systems offer advantages and disadvantages. As 9/11 proved in a dramatic way, cell phone networks can be overloaded if everybody in a region is trying to use their phone at the same time. Text- and IM alert systems typically require opt-in by senders and receivers; and both e-mail and telephone-based systems become useless in the event of power or Internet outages.

The beauty of a communication system that makes use of multiple platforms is that it’s not as vulnerable to being made irrelevant. Such a system is based on the idea that one can never know what the nature of the emergency is going to be -- nor where those who need to receive the alerts are going to be.

That’s the modus operandi of Leesburg, Va.-based Omnilert LLC, which formed in 2003 and implemented its first college emergency notification system in 2004. Today, according to CEO Ara Bagdasarian, more than 750 schools across the country use the company’s e2Campus system, which makes use of multiple communication channels -- text messages, voice phone calls, desktop alerts, digital signage, campus televisions, public address systems, Facebook, Twitter, website badges, and more -- all of which can be reached simultaneously through one centralized, “unified” interface.

“The whole point of a unified emergency notification system is reaching people through as many communication means as possible,” Bagdasarian said. “So, with our system, if you’re a student and you’re on Facebook, you’ll get the message right there. If you’re a teacher and you’re in the classroom, you can have the phone ring in the classroom or have an alert appear on your desktop system. If you’re a delivery person walking across campus, you might receive an audible alert from the school’s public address system. So, keeping it unified allows one message to be generated and go out to multiple communication endpoints.”

Security Can Take a Village

The latest addition to the suite of tools included in the e2Campus system is a feature called “uTip” that enables anyone in a given campus or community to communicate directly with school representatives simply by sending an SMS text message from their standard cell phone. Tipsters need not be registered with the e2Campus system for it to work, so anyone in the surrounding neighborhoods or town can text a tip using the service to report suspicious activities they see on campus, such as theft or vandalism. Schools can set up the service for either anonymous or “auditable” alerts, depending on policy guidelines or administrative choice.

“With this service, school officials suddenly have thousands of eyes and ears on the street, or wherever they are, people who can report what needs reporting,” Bagdasarian said. “Because of its ability to be an anonymous tip service, a student could, for example, if he wanted to, let campus security know that there’s a drug deal going on in the dormitory next door, but if he doesn’t want them to know specifically who he is or reveal his identity, he can submit this anonymous tip into the school via text message as opposed to going to an online forum or sending in an e-mail.”

Bagdasarian added that because of the rampancy of texting, the time is prime for a service such as uTip. “The reality is, if you look at behaviors of different age demographics, those who are 35 and under will often prefer to send in a text message than to pick up the phone and dial 911 or call the campus police,” he said. “I mean, texting is definitely much more of an accepted behavior for that age demographic, and obviously college students fall directly within that age category and are constantly texting. The bigger picture is that we want to create safely connected communities.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Security Today.

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