Faced with increased security concerns, especially in light of recent school shootings across the U.S., educators are looking for new ways to improve their campus security systems–and converging physical security tools on their campus computer network is the latest trend they are turning to.

At the Campus Safety Conference in California on Feb. 20, officials from Cisco Systems discussed the importance of converging a school’s physical security tools on its network, which they said schools are now doing at an unprecedented pace.

Although campus security is a top priority for school leaders, many schools’ physical and network security infrastructures are disjointed, comprising a patchwork of separate alarm systems, surveillance cameras, communication systems, and radios that cannot interact with the digital, network-connected systems more recently put in place.

Brigham Young University (BYU) sought to model its campus security systems on those often found in the corporate world by merging its physical security tools on its computer network. All of BYU’s major campus buildings now use physical access cards connected to the network, and the university recently upgraded its analog surveillance cameras to an IP-based surveillance system, so images from the cameras are visible through a network connection. In addition, using Cisco’s IP Interoperability Collaboration System (IPICS), BYU merged its campus radio system and its IP-based network.

“Before we modernized our campus safety communications, training used to be a nightmare for our emergency dispatchers, because they literally had to know more than 70 different user interfaces to transmit information,” said Steve Goodman, BYU’s communications center supervisor. “Now that we’re using the network as our communication platform, the dispatch process is streamlined and efficient.”

The university already has mass-notification techniques in place, including eMail notification, and is working to install other methods, such as self-subscribing text messages and a system that allows an administrator to take control of all campus telephones and use the speaker function on those phones.

On-campus surveys revealed that the number of students who have cell phones with text capabilities reaches into the mid-90 percent range.

“Most students don’t even have land lines anymore,” Goodman said. “We understand that those students roll … over fairly quickly, with students transferring, graduating, and we’ll have to entice the students and the community to keep their contact numbers up to date.”

As school violence garners national headlines, Goodman said events such as the Virginia Tech shooting last year brought the need for vigilant security methods to the forefront of university officials’ minds.

“It’s more visible now, and it did help pave the way,” Goodman said. “Our university administration has always been very supportive, and now some of these things are more public, and there’s a better understanding of it now.”

At Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Director for Networks and Systems John Turner realized the university needed a major reevaluation of its campus emergency notification tools. Turner invested in Cisco Unified Communications, and the first move was to roll out Berbee Informacast, which enables users to broadcast messages to overhead speakers and to displays on IP phones across campus.

“We wanted to ensure we used all the tools we had available to us in the most effective way possible; our IP-based communication system allowed us the flexibility to expand our communications reach,” Turner said.

Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill., also made IP communications central to its campus safety and communication strategy. College officials deployed SchoolMessenger for Cisco Unified Communications, which supports on-site day-to-day operations and is integrated with an IP communications platform. The school uses SchoolMessenger’s Application Service Provider (ASP) solution for additional off-site capacity.

Most recently, school officials used the system to cancel classes after weather problems.

“It took us just 16 minutes to alert 18,000 students that the school would be closed due to bad weather,” said Jack Leifel, the college’s chief information officer. “Our system then automated a report of who answered the phone, who received voice messages, and which calls did not go through.”

Spates of school violence, including last April’s Virginia Tech shootings and February’s shootings at Northern Illinois University, also highlighted the need for emergency communications.

“We’d already been looking at what potential vehicles we’d have to communicate to staff and students prior to Virginia Tech,” said Leifel. He and his team, including Bill Helmold, IT director of client services, examined SchoolMessenger’s mass-notification system and presented it to campus officials before its installation.

“After the Virginia Tech shootings, our president got back to us and said action was needed,” Leifel said.

“We did a network upgrade in 2001 or so, installed IP telephony in 2003, and from that point we’ve been looking at ways to leverage other products and integrate,” he said. “We have the basis in place, and once that VoIP system is in, you’ve got the basis to move forward.”