Emergency Notification

Protecting the learning environment

Inside classrooms, 10 to 100 or more people are isolated from the outside world in a room with doors that do not lock to keep danger out. In the eyes of campus safety experts, this is the perfect setting for a potentially bad situation.

The amount of time college students spend inside classrooms—from two to six hours daily—causes a sizeable gap in mass notification system coverage for most colleges and universities. To penetrate the protected learning environment, schools must employ precision notification systems.

On college campuses, professors have taken a hard line against the use of cell phones and laptops in class because of the disruptions caused by calling, texting and surfing the Internet. Most classrooms have signs posted prohibiting use of cell phones, and many professors include similar language in the class syllabus. A National Education Association survey shows that 85 percent of professors on college campuses support banning cell phones in their classrooms.

So it’s clear that the classroom is one of education’s sacred spaces. But what happens when events outside demand that emergency information penetrate the protective cocoon of the classroom?

Mass notification layers fail to penetrate

Unfortunately, the predominant methods of mass notification on university campuses—cell phone/text messaging, e-mails and Web announcements—are minimally effective in the classroom.

On average, only 40 to 50 percent of students opt into a school’s calling program, which equates to 10 to 12 students in a classroom of 25. If, say, 75 percent have their phones turned off in class, then only two or three students would be able to receive a message pushed through the school’s cell phone-based emergency notification system (ENS). Given that calling systems cannot target specific classrooms, it may be 30 minutes or more before a message appears on one of those phones. Even fewer students bring laptops to class, but the same logic applies.

“I think that someone would have to personally come to the classroom if we had an emergency scenario,” said Emily Drill, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and Allegheny College. She added that while students are familiar with fire alarm drills, their experience with other emergency evacuation events is minimal.

IP Endpoints Get the Job Done

“Emergency notifications in the classroom setting must be made by more effective tools than e-mail, text messages or Web pages. Two-way communication systems, radio receivers, digital signage or VoIP phones provide the most rapid means for emergency notification,” said Dennis Sullivan, assistant EHS director and emergency manager at Louisville University

The most effective way to alert a classroom is to use a precision notification system that connects to dedicated, networked alerting devices inside the room. These may include proprietary alerting devices made by manufacturers such as Metis Secure Solutions or VoIP phones similar to those made by Cisco Corporation. A precision notification system targets alerting devices by location and uses network infrastructure independent of consumer communications networks. These systems can send messages to one or all classrooms without alerting the entire campus population and are a faster, more-accurate way to deliver a warning.

In all its classrooms, the University of Louisville has installed VoIP phones set to dial the University Police if the receiver is picked up. They also communicate emergency messages in the classrooms using a text screen, audio and a flashing light.

“During a recent tornado warning, every classroom was provided timely warning that was faster than text messages, e-mails or our Web page,” Sullivan said. “This system is not for everyone and would be extremely costly unless you already have converted the university from analog phones to digital phones.”

One advantage of these devices is that they display text and provide audio data to the whole class—including the professor, who is the appropriate authority to direct the class during an emergency. These systems are activated during an emergency only, removing impetus for students to have their cell phones or laptops active during class.

It is important that text and voice information about the need for sheltering in place be conveyed immediately. One EHS director confided that she worries about a scenario where a dangerous situation outside occurs five minutes before classes are dismissed, resulting in thousands of students potentially walking headlong into a crisis. Many fire alarms and outdoor sirens produce a warning tone only and cannot provide detailed instructions. In the event of a chemical spill, severe weather, violent crime or similar situation, leaving the classroom to see what is happening may be dangerous.

Newer fire alarm systems support live voice using a microphone at the panel, but a person has to be in the building and have keys to the fire panel to operate it. All of these steps waste precious time.

According to a survey, fewer than 20 percent of higher education institutions have deployed in-building ENS. Therefore, there are many students who won’t get emergency notifications during class. Administrators who make the effort to deploy precision notification systems will fill a gap left by the other commonly deployed ENS layers. It is the best way to inform and protect more students while respecting the integrity of the classroom and the learning experience.

 

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Security Today.

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