A team of researchers at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, N.C., is testing several technologies for their possible use in creating a network of personal alert devices to help keep students safe.

Last year, two University of North Carolina (UNC)-Wilmington students were murdered. Now, Barry DuVall and his staff at ECU’s Center for Wireless and Mobile Computing spend their days building portable safety alert systems on trash cans, mounting wired poles in the yard, and testing cell phones with panic buttons.

Their mission: Find a way to make personal alert devices work on North Carolina’s college campuses.

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  • They grapple with questions such as: key fobs or cell phones? Wired or wireless? More security inside buildings–or outside?

    Some of the technology they work with has been on the market for a decade. Some is still in the lab.

    But DuVall wants some sort of device in the hands of students and staff at the 16-campus UNC system–and he wants it there now.

    “I think there’s a tendency to put off worrying about things like personal safety and sort of assume it will go away or we won’t have to take it too seriously,” he said recently. “But when we read every day, things like a student shot at a high school here last week, things like that are happening all around us.”

    DuVall hopes UNC system officials soon will endorse a proposal to create a network of alert devices that will function not only on UNC campuses, but also off-campus and at the state’s private colleges and universities.

    Jessica Lee Faulkner, 19, and Christen Marie Naujoks, 22, were the UNC-Wilmington students who died a month apart last year.

    Faulkner was killed in her dorm May 5; fellow student Curtis Dixon was charged with kidnapping, raping, and murdering her. Dixon was in custody when he committed suicide in December 2004.

    Naujoks was shot to death June 4, allegedly by former boyfriend, John Brian Peck. Peck, a former UNC-Wilmington student, killed himself three days later as he fled from police.

    Mainmain Yu, 22, an ECU graduate student from the Hunan province of China, said she worries about crime on and off campus and would appreciate having a personal alert device.

    “I am a female, so I feel that it is not safe enough to walk alone at night,” Yu said. “And my American friends warn me lots of times that, after dark, Greenville is not safe enough.”

    The center’s research got a public viewing in November, when it sponsored a conference on alert devices that attracted eight vendors and more than 100 representatives from law enforcement and UNC schools.

    Among those who attended was Jim Ramier, an Atlanta-based sales representative for Linear Corp., a Carlsbad, Calif., wireless company.

    Linear makes a transmitter that works with the “blue light” safety devices that are found on many campuses, including ECU’s. By pushing a button on one of the blue light stations, people can let authorities know they’re in trouble and where they are.

    Of course, for a blue light device to work, an endangered person has to be able to reach it. Linear’s transmitter, which can be carried on a key ring, allows the lights to be activated from up to 100 feet away. It works both outside and inside a building, provided the student is close enough to the blue light.

    As many as 65,000 individually coded transmitters reportedly can work off one system.

    “If you’re in the building and within 100 feet of the blue light and press the button, it’s going to activate it and tell them student Betsy Jones is within 100 feet of this particular blue light,” Ramier said.

    Bosch Security makes another key fob-style transmitter that reportedly has been used at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., for more than a decade. A student once used her transmitter to alert authorities that she was in a car with her former boyfriend, who was trying to drive her off campus. Antennae and global positioning technology can be used to track people through their transmitters.

    “Everybody knows security is a beep away,” said Lee Struble, campus safety director at Nazareth, which also uses the devices to track expensive equipment. “There is a general sense of increased safety, similar to a neighborhood-watch program.”

    He said Nazareth averages five or six alarms a year, including medical emergencies, fights, and disputes between boyfriends and girlfriends.

    Security doesn’t come cheap. Jeff Scott, who works in application sales for Bosch, estimated that Nazareth’s system, used by 1,800 people in 20 buildings across 100 acres, cost about $500,000. At 23,000-student ECU, Ramier estimated a Linear system that works with the existing blue lights would run about $200,000.

    And neither system works off-campus.

    Wider range is the appeal of Benefon–essentially a cell phone with a panic button. It can work worldwide but is less reliable indoors, where it can be hard to pick up a satellite signal, said Jonathan Ventulett, vice president of operations for Airo Wireless in Atlanta, which sells the Finnish-made Benefon in the United States.

    With a retail price of $400 each, Ventulett said, most Benefon sales are to the military and the government. East Carolina is the first campus to express any interest in the device, he said.

    At Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., a pilot program is scheduled to begin late next month that will use the school’s wireless computing network to monitor the location of about 100 alert devices.

    Jay Dominick, chief information officer and vice president for information systems at Wake Forest, said devices will work inside buildings and will first be distributed to students and staff who use the music and art building, where people often work alone.

    “This sort of technology is going to explode over the next few years–being able to tell where you are and where things are around you, and being able to do something with that information,” Dominick said.

    Scott said Bosch developed its alert device with the college market in mind but has had to branch out and sell to other institutions, such as long-term care facilities.

    The college market “doesn’t lend itself to new technology,” he says. Schools are “very slow to change the process.”

    DuVall dreams of putting a device in the hands of students and faculty that will make them feel safe on and off campus.

    “Looking beyond the confines of the university would be desirable,” he said. “Projects that integrate the campus with the community are so important. So we need to look beyond a restricted environment. People are always on the move, so we need to have a lot of different options.”

    Links:

    Center for Wireless and Mobile Computing
    http://www.cwmc.ecu.edu

    Benefon
    http://www.benefon.com

    Linear Corp.
    http://linearcorp.com