Automating Emergency Communication

Automating Emergency Communication

A cell phone is not an emergency communication plan

For campuses nationwide, emergency communication planning is not a topic that is taken lightly, nor should it be. Simply having an up-to-date plan for a crisis can be the key to not only limiting damage but potentially saving lives. Whether it be an active shooter scenario or inclement weather, the ability to efficiently communicate with faculty, students, parents and law enforcement simultaneously is crucial. For many administrators and decision-makers, it is plain to see when a video surveillance or access control system is obsolete and in need of an upgrade. Unfortunately, it’s not always as easy to recognize an outdated emergency communication plan.

With the popularity of smartphones, some are led to believe that simply having access to a cell phone is, in and of itself, an emergency communication “plan.” This could not be further from the truth. When a threat strikes, it can be difficult to know the proper workflow, such as who, if anyone, has been designated to contact authorities and what details they are able to share. The lack of clarity, combined with issues surrounding cell signal and battery life, will only lead institutions to be woefully underprepared. Past incidents have proven that excessive phone use during emergencies often causes networks to overload and shut down, rendering a phone all but useless.

In order to create a unified emergency communication procedure for a campus, intelligence and strategy are necessary components. Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled technology and Programmable Logic Devices (PLDs) have emerged as invaluable tools for institutions to maximize resources and minimize risks. By developing the correct infrastructure, utilizing the right technology and applying strategically automated procedures, administrators can easily configure an emergency plan that works for their campus.

Understanding IoT & PLDs

The Internet of Things (IoT) has long since arrived in the security industry. Yet some still struggle to define the ways IoT can solve problems that end-users and integrators commonly face. So, what is IoT and what exactly can it do for security deployments? The Internet of Things is an ever-growing network of physical devices, each with a unique IP address for internet connectivity. While connectivity is often the first trait that comes to mind when considering IoT, the technology has much more to offer.

When applied to school security, IoT solutions enable real-time security alerts, which can greatly improve physical security protocols. The interconnected nature of IoT means that environmental data can be processed and relayed much faster than would be possible by human means alone.

When access control modules can communicate with video surveillance cameras and other security devices, administrators are given a more comprehensive overview of the happenings in their facilities. This technology can also negate common limitations that physical security measures face, such as improved access to a digital trail of events, making them that much more intelligent.

Thanks to their robust capabilities, IoT-enabled solutions are often made up of powerful Programmable Logic Devices (PLDs). PLDs may be less commonly known by name but are frequently used in deployments, especially those requiring advanced functionality. These devices can take many form factors and utilize a variety of sensors. While such a device may look like a surveillance camera, it performs more like a computer with a lens than a traditional video camera.

A PLD is exactly what it sounds like: a device that allows for the programming of a logical function. Think if “this” input, then “that” output. This means that if the camera sensor detects motion long after hours on a campus, then it will immediately alert administrators and possibly law enforcement depending upon severity.

The devices themselves have the ability to make logical “decisions” that have been pre-programmed into it to say what actions must be taken depending upon the input. These pre-programmed outputs can be tailored specifically for a school’s unique emergency response protocol and include automated escalation workflows as well.

Together, IoT-enabled PLD solutions not only gather data but unlike traditional security equipment, they take it a few steps further. These powerful systems work to interpret, analyze and convert data into valuable and actionable information for a higher degree of intelligence. Thanks to their connectivity feature, this all takes place in mere seconds and improves overall situational awareness through real-time insights and alerts.

Integrated Solutions

Today, most schools use some basic forms of access control, video surveillance and emergency communications, each providing standalone benefits. But when combined, they allow for precise and strategic security measures.

PLDs can do just that. With the ability to provide multiple functionalities within a single device, PLDs can easily serve multiple roles providing a more holistic approach to safety.

When installed, a single IoT-enabled PLD can deliver many features. For schools that have a sprawling open-design campus, it can be a challenge to immediately reach all faculty members and students in a crisis. For these scenarios, a single device may be equipped with a camera for surveillance, a keypad RFID module for access control and an emergency duress button for two-way communications and mass notification.

Merging the technologies into a powerful unified solution not only creates a more efficient system but also aids with budgetary requirements by cutting down both hardware and installation costs.

IoT-enabled mass notification systems allow administrators and responders to provide crucial campus-wide instructions during chaotic events where evacuation may not be the best plan. Creating emergency messaging templates helps administrators strategically prepare for any situation that may arise. These messages can then be sent out immediately when needed, providing important information to initiate safety procedures.

Multi-functional devices also allow for the transmission of mission- critical information to first responders who may not otherwise have that insight. By providing law enforcement with live video and a digital trail of events leading up to the incident, officers have improved situational awareness and can better plan their next steps.

As an added bonus, emergency mass notification systems have an abundance of day-to-day applications, helping schools to maximize their ROI and operational efficiency. Given the numerous ways they can be used, from school event updates to PTA announcements and reminders, they can be easily justified in any school’s budget.

Strategic Automation

It is an unfortunate fact that in times of crisis, the human element of security can often be the weakest. It’s natural for even well-trained administrators to panic and lose focus, degrading even the most well thought-out plan. In emergencies, everyone knows that the first three to five minutes are the most critical for minimizing damages. In these crucial moments, PLDs become invaluable, proving themselves to be dependable when time is of the essence.

When considering your campus’ emergency communications protocol, it’s important to analyze whether your current efforts are proactive or reactive. In the event of an incident, fast response time from law enforcement is crucial for intervention. Do you plan to wait until you can locate specified administrators prior to contacting authorities and sending through an approved mass notification? This is reactive— and not as effective.

Using advanced IoT solutions means that technology can not only monitor but also proactively recognize trouble in real-time. On a campus without IoT-connected solutions, an administrator may be ignorant of a potentially dangerous situation as it unfolds, only recognizing the issue after it is far too late to intervene. At this point, the process of calling law enforcement, initiating a lockdown and notifying parents, faculty and students becomes damage control. Thankfully, this isn’t the only way this scenario can play out.

For schools equipped with IoT-enabled PLD solutions, a student or faculty member close to the emergency can trigger an emergency alert button. This button not only connects the school to law enforcement, providing a near-immediate police response, but it can send video from incidents to provide real-time updates to specified faculty members. Simultaneously, the system can send out a pre-approved campus-wide text notification, reaching all key faculty members regardless of their location on campus. All of this can take place within a span of 20 to 30 seconds.

While there is no sure-fire way to stop a tragedy before it happens, the use of advanced security technologies allows schools to greatly minimize risks and take proactive measures to strategically protect everyone on their campus. With the ever-evolving threat landscape, there is no doubt that the future of physical security will include IoT in one way or another.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Security Today.

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