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How to get the most out of alert systems

Schools need to explore the use of more 'push' notification technologies.

Schools and colleges that invest thousands of dollars in mass notification systems also need to promote awareness of and participation in these systems for them to be effective, experts say. That’s one piece of advice contained in a new online resource from IT giant CDW-G, which recently unveiled its Mass Notification Toolkit web site March 2—giving educators and administrators a clearinghouse of information for how to implement and publicize potentially life-saving alerts effectively.

CDW-G created the free web site after a 2008 study from the company, “This is a Test – This is Only a Test: Updating America’s Emergency Alert Infrastructure,” showed that more than 30 percent of Americans polled had no knowledge of their town, city, or state’s notification system.

The study showed that most local governments turn primarily to television and radio to alert citizens of incoming storms or other emergencies. But with 1 billion text messages sent daily nationwide, the study encourages officials to embrace the medium’s immediacy. Although many schools and colleges have implemented text-message alert systems, some students don’t sign up to receive the messages, because these systems aren’t publicized adequately.

Houston Thomas, a public safety business development manager for CDW-G who helped complete the notification study, said relying on local media to alert students and faculty comes with its drawbacks. The CDW-G study–although it did not focus on education–showed that 64 percent of respondents said they turn to TV first during an emergency. Eighteen percent said they tune in to the radio, and 2 percent turned to eMail alerts.

“If you give it to 15 media outlets, you’ll get 15 different messages sometimes,” Thomas said, adding that there is an “awareness gap” even when institutions make great efforts to purchase and install state-of-the-art alert methods. “Citizens were not aware of the sophistication level of their cities’ [alert systems],” he said.

John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, said officials should not just spread the word about notification procedures, but should also find ways to target specific groups of faculty or students as cell-phone technology becomes more sophisticated.

Notification methods involve two kinds of warning: “push” and “fetch” models. The “fetch” method includes eMail, which students have to check before they can get the emergency message. “Push” strategies include texting students on their mobile devices, such as iPhones and BlackBerrys, so they’re sure to receive a message within minutes of its dispatch.

“We really felt that we needed to increase push methods,” Turner said. “It buzzes in your pocket, and you’re going to answer it.”

Even with the improvements to mass notification systems in recent years, Turner said, CDW-G’s notification web site could be critical for school leaders upgrading their emergency warning systems.

“There wasn’t any great succinct set of information,” he said. “People just pieced things together.”

Campus IT officials said the future of notification systems could include targeted warnings. With more students using mobile devices with global positioning systems installed, IT departments could send alert messages to students in a certain building or area of campus. If, for example, there was a biological emergency in a campus lab, one set of alerts could tell students in the laboratory to evacuate to a certain part of campus for decontamination. Another alert could be sent to other students warning them to stay away from the lab, Turner said.

“That’s the natural progression as we go forward–specifying messages,” he said.

The toolkit web site lists a series of notification types, as well as appropriate measures for each category. For non-urgent notifications, blast eMails and media advisories are appropriate, according to the site. Moderate notification calls for text messages and home web page postings, among other measures. Urgent situations call for all forms of notification, supplemented by in-person notification delivered by security personnel.

Turner said face-to-face warnings are often called “Sneakernet,” and the method paid dividends at Union University in Tennessee in February 2008, when a tornado ripped through campus.

The tornado destroyed 40 percent of Union’s dorms and damaged another 40 percent, but no one was killed thanks to a comprehensive warning system, said CDW-G’s Thomas, who visited the campus shortly after the storm.

Union University students said campus staff went classroom to classroom to warn students of the oncoming tornado.

“They didn’t rely on a single solitary mechanism to do what they needed to do,” Thomas said.


CDW-G Mass Notification Toolkit

Brandeis University

Union University

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