In Case of Emergency

— March 05, 2008

In December 2007, a gunman entered a Louisiana State University (LSU) campus apartment building and killed two doctoral candidates. LSU reacted by sending two text messages to the 8,400 students who had registered for its clearTXT-provided emergency notification service. The only problem? Not everyone who had signed up received the alert.

Much was made in the media of the emergency notification system's failure. According to published reports, it was blamed on miscommunication between clearTXT and LSU about how alert registration data would be collected from enrollees. Another issue was that the system had reportedly never been tested prior to its use in a real emergency.

The incident brings to light some of the challenges inherent in the growing adoption of text message-based emergency notification systems by universities, K-12 school districts, enterprises, and government groups at the state, local, and federal levels.

As mobile professionals and private citizens become increasingly attached to their wireless handhelds, it's becoming evident that the best way to reach out in an emergency is through that all-important device. Yet, the systems suffer from a lack of public awareness and a misunderstanding on the part of potential participants as to how their information will be used, leading to slow uptake. In some cases, organizations have resorted to sweetening the pie by offering contests, coupons and other incentives to get people to sign up.

Lack Of Participation
Houston Thomas, public safety business development manager for CDW-G, a provider of  I.T. products for government, education and healthcare, says many cities have sophisticated systems in place but don't have a sustainable method of generating public awareness.

According to a survey conducted in November 2007 by CDW-G, 66% of Americans don't know if their town has an email or text message-based emergency alert system in place. Among citizens in the nation's 20 largest metropolitan areas, the San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose area had the highest percentage (still only 22%) who indicated awareness of their city's modern emergency notification system. By comparison, only 12% of New Yorkers and 9% of Chicago residents indicated knowledge of their city's email/text alert system.

Miami/Fort Lauderdale and Tampa/St. Petersburg were ranked by respondents as the best cities in terms of alerting citizens during an emergency, most likely due to the frequent hazardous weather events characteristic of those areas. Still, "best" is subjective.  On a scale from 0 to 5, where 0 is "can't rate" and 5 is "very strong," the Miami area came in at a middling 3.08 and Tampa scored only 2.82.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said their office or school was good or very strong at relaying emergency information; among parents, 55% couldn't rate their school or office's alert system, or said there was room for improvement.

Local Governments Stepping Up
Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay Area has had a "robust," multichannel alerting system in place for some time, says Joe Walsh, business development and operations leader for SquareLoop. The next step was adding text message alerts. SquareLoop's Mobile Alert Network provides location-based wireless alerts, targeting the public safety and education sectors.

Subscribers send SquareLoop their home zip code and any other zip codes of interest to them (for example, the zip code of their office or their children's schools). In an emergency, county officials send a text message only to subscribers in the affected area. SquareLoop geographically tracks, but doesn't broadcast, a user's location, helping to ensure the subscriber's privacy. The county's Web site will inform residents how to install the SquareLoop software on their mobile devices. County authorities are still hammering out potential legal issues before rolling out the service.

"Text messaging is part of the larger alerting ecosystem," says Bruce Lee, industry solutions manager for Sprint, which partnered with SquareLoop in deploying the Mobile Alert Network in Contra Costa County. "An emergency alert system has to be integrated and comprehensive." As a hosted solution, SquareLoop integrated easily with Contra Costa County's existing systems. SquareLoop's emergency alerts can be translated into multiple languages and are encrypted and authenticated to protect against spoofing.

Robert Craddock, CEO of First Alert System Text (FAST), says his desire to create a comprehensive emergency text notification system arose out of the F2 tornado that hit central Florida on Christmas Day 2006. "There was no warning that there was even a tornado in the area," says Craddock. He worked with the Florida government to "get wireless carriers to whitelist text messages" so that they don't end up in subscribers' spam filters.
By October 2007, all major wireless carriers operating in Florida were on board. The next step was persuading counties, cities, and school districts in the state to sign up. At first, FAST asked these groups to pay a licensing fee, but that idea was quickly abandoned. "There's no reason why public safety agencies should have a roadblock to safeguarding citizens," says Craddock.

FAST subscribers receive severe weather notifications from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and alerts from civil and law enforcement agencies specific to their registered zip codes. Enterprises can use FAST for their notification needs as well.

On the national front, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is spearheading the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). The effort aims to meet the mandate of an executive order signed in June 2006 by President George W. Bush calling for the creation of a modern, comprehensive public alert and warning system.

FEMA ran four IPAWS pilot projects in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi during hurricane season in 2007. From Aug. 1 through Dec. 31, 2007, residents and officials in those states were covered by new alerting capabilities, including:

  • Alerts over multiple communications devices. Residents can receive messages via email, cell phone, or other personal devices.
  • Emergency audio messages sent to residential landlines. This reaches 6,000 households each minute, in English and in Spanish.
  • Alerts to deaf people and those with hearing difficulties. These individuals receive a video notification with an American Sign Language version of the message. 
  • State and local collaboration tools. First responders could share information via a dedicated Web page.
Despite the efforts, people weren't signing up to receive alerts; 8,308 people signed up across the three states, according to FEMA spokesperson Alexandra Kirin.

New York City has tapped local firm Send Word Now (SWN) for its emergency notification pilot. The SWN Alert Service is a redundant system that doesn't depend on local infrastructure, which removes the burden of management from organizations looking to deploy such a system. SWN can send out about 200,000 voice calls, emails, or SMS message per hour from centers in Newark, N.J., Albany, N.Y., and on the West Coast. The service tracks and documents responses to alerts for auditing and compliance purposes.

For schools, the cost per student per year is $1 -$2 for limited SWN features that meet the basic needs of getting messages to parents and enabling them to respond. Government groups and enterprises can access more sophisticated SWN features, such as the ability to push out conference calls to critical personnel. SWN users include Wal-Mart, Pfizer and Tufts University.

Keeping Schools in the Loop

K-12 schools are keeping up with the technology curve, too. For example, the Washington Township Board of Education in Morris County, N.J., has implemented Honeywell's Instant Alert for Schools. During an emergency, parents and guardians are notified via email, cell phone, landline, PDA or pager. The system is also used for routine notifications, such as school closings, delays, or early dismissals due to inclement weather.

Montclair State University (MSU), in Montclair, N.J., has deployed a solution from Rave Wireless. Rave Alert is a three-way, redundant broadcast alert system that sends out emergency notifications to a directory of subscribers via text message, voicemail and email. The system sends alerts via multiple data centers. Packages start at $10,000 per year for smaller schools. Larger institutions can expect to pay $50,000 - $60,000 yearly for all-inclusive Rave packages.

MSU initially required all first-year students living in dorms to buy a Rave phone, which works on the school's Sprint network, for $260 per semester, says Karen Pennington, MSU's VP of student development and campus life. Later, the program was expanded to cover all new full-time undergrads, regardless of whether or not they reside on campus. Parents can also receive notifications via voicemail.

MSU has used the broadcast alert function eight to 10 times, and has sent out notifications twice since the 2007-2008 school year started.

For University of Colorado at Boulder, another Rave user, the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech spurred school officials to action, says Malinda Miller-Huey, director of Web communications for the school. The school quickly identified a vendor and got the system in place for the fall 2007 semester.
UC-Boulder used Rave Alert on the first day of the fall semester, when a man stabbed a student on campus before stabbing himself. The number of students signed up for Rave spiked sharply after the incident; 1,200 individuals were enrolled before the stabbing, and that number shot to 6,000 a day later. Overall, though, only about 31% of students, faculty and staff are enrolled. Universities cannot force students to opt into a notification system.

Unfortunately, "People don't see the value of being tied into a national alert system until disaster strikes," says FAST's Craddock.


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