Forewarned is forearmed
Driven by a number of high-profile incidents, the business of providing emergency alert services across a college campus, large city or region is booming. Vendors of all shapes and sizes are stepping up to the plate with stand-alone solutions to meet the demands of their current customer base, while a few dedicated providers large enough to handle the needs of major metropolitan areas are setting up shop in places like New York City and San Diego. Though these alerts may be delivered by something as simple as a phone call, many customers are demanding support for everything from SMS text messaging to faxes and e-mail.
Universities and municipalities are buying emergency alert services at a rapid clip, but schools have slightly different criteria for the end result compared with municipal customers.
“Universities want to notify their whole population, both faculty and staff, for emergency situations,” said Ray Bonneau, product line manager for NEC Unified Solutions. “They want to contact their student population mostly through SMS, and usually by voice to faculty or to emergency response teams. Municipalities want the functionality to notify a geographic area, so if there’s a water main break they can notify by ZIP code.”
However, both universities and municipalities want to allow their respective populations to be able to opt in to alerts, edit their contact information and let people select the notifications they receive.
“There’s a lot more of that on the government side,” Bonneau said. “It can be any proactive … message that needs to go out.” Traffic alerts and school closings are popular, and NEC has several customers in the K-12 market that use the alert system to send absentee notifications to parents. “It puts more students in seats and results in more funding from the state, a couple hundred thousand extra per month,” Bonneau said, adding that the absentee notification alerts pay for the system.
NEC is leveraging its PBX presence in the higher education and health care markets to deliver its Emergency Campus Notification solution to existing customers. “We’re still in the early adoption [phase],” Bonneau said. “The interest level went way up after the Virginia Tech incident.” (On April 16, 2007, a gunman killed at least 33 people at the university’s Blacksburg, Va., campus.)
For some vendors, getting the opportunity to work in a collegiate environment often depends on the ability to work with what the school already has in place. For instance, Georgia Perimeter College, an institution with more than 22,000 students and 3000 faculty and staff on campuses throughout the Atlanta metropolitan area, recently deployed a Cistera Networks emergency alerts system designed to work within its IP telephony network. The system currently can deliver broadcast text and voice messages to more than 1900 phones across 36 buildings, with future functionality to support cell phones, e-mail alerts and IP-enabled loudspeakers in common areas.
“We could have bought an overhead paging system, an overlay,” said Chris Burge, the university’s full-time IP telephony consultant, “but we wanted something that would integrate into the phone system.” Faculty wanted classroom IP phones to become a security device capable of receiving a silent page, text or broadcast message.
Georgia Perimeter’s alert system can address all the phones in a hierarchy arrangement, sending alerts to groups of classrooms, a building or group of buildings, and entire campuses.
“We can use the system to send either a live page or use canned messages for school closings,” said Burge. “We can see where [alerting] is evolving. We need to go well beyond the classroom and have to cover hallways and gathering spaces.”
For Cistera, after a modest beginning, emergency alerting has grown to be an important revenue center.
“About 40% of our business is event alerting and notification,” said Greg Royal, founder and executive vice president of Cistera. “To be honest, it’s not what we expected. Education took to IP telephony pretty quickly, so we got quite a few customers early on. IP [alerting] is the first of a number of steps we took. We then added [support for] analog phones, cell phones, two-way radio systems — pretty much any device that occurred on a campus that they wanted to have party to this capability.”
Leveraging an IP telephony system and Cistera’s software, a 911 call can automatically trigger an alert to attach a recording onto a two-way radio system in order to make an over-the-air notification to campus safety personnel.
“If [campus security] knows there is a call in progress, they can get to the campus building faster than [off-campus] police can,” Royal said, adding that he knows of at least one incident where a 911 call to a PSAP had been made, but campus security didn’t know what was going and could not respond effectively.
Supplemental additions to PBX packages can go only so far, as the sheer number of calls that need to be completed within a short time requires a large and dedicated infrastructure. Consequently, large municipalities are signing up with dedicated “hosted” services to meet their needs. San Diego County’s hosted alert service had — almost literally — a “trial by fire” experience as wildfires swept through Southern California in October 2007. (See cover story on page 42.)
On Oct. 22, Twenty First Century Communications performed seven different alerting campaigns through the following day notifying citizens to plan for evacuation. “We did the majority of alerts for the fire,” said Ellen Grevey, a spokesperson for TFCC.
Between 7 p.m. local time and noon the next day, 394,915 calls were made to San Diego County households — first to residents to prepare for a precautionary evacuation, followed by voluntary and mandatory evacuation notices. Alerts were staged to prevent gridlocked roads.
Being able to send out alerts by location — geo-targeting — was critical to the success of the alerts and subsequent evacuations. “For public safety, geo-targeting is critical,” Grevey said. “They access maps online. They can simply lasso an area, and the system automatically generates the phone numbers for all of those residents. The list instantly arrives, and the calls are made.”
Now that the fires are out, TFCC is updating maps for San Diego County. “We’re putting together special mapping layers for floodplains,” Grevey said. “The fires left land vulnerable for flooding, so we’re now preparing for that.” In early December, San Diego sent out several flash flood alerts.
Moving forward, San Diego and other municipalities are encouraging citizens to be more involved in the notification process. “Counties can access listed phone numbers very easily, but it’s harder to access unlisted information, such as cell phone numbers,” Grevey said. “[They] are now encouraging people to opt in to register cell phones and other methods of communication and their preferences. Some people prefer their cell phone, some people prefer e-mail.”
A continent away, the City of New York is testing a service by Send Word Now that will provide emergency e-mail and SMS alerts to residents in Lower Manhattan and a portion of Queens known as the Rockaways as a part of its Notify NYC trial.
For co-founder and chief strategy officer Michael Sher, involvement in the Big Apple trial is part prestige and part personal. “New York City is a huge opportunity,” he said. “There’s an extra level of serious because it’s right here in our backyard. New York City has the bull’s eye when it comes to terrorist threats.”
Working in downtown Manhattan during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sher experienced communications difficulties first hand and founded Send Word Now at the end of that year. Today, the company has 50 employees and supports seven of the top 10 of the Fortune 100, as well as numerous media, government, higher education and financial clients. After announcing the company’s participation in the NYC trial, “at least 25 brand names” came to Send Word Now, Sher said.
Public safety agencies also have embraced the company’s alerting service to update and modernize contact procedures that date back decades.
“At our core, we’ve replaced or are trying to replace the manual calling tree,” Sher said. “We’re automating what has been a historical manual process in government agencies. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been at where the communication plan has been a thick notebook. There’s no way to confirm receipt, no centralized way to confirm reception of a message.”
Unique features that Send Word Now offers include an ability to provide an alert call with one-touch connection into a 200-person conference bridge and international alert delivery. “About 20% of our business is business overseas; 20% of the calls we make are from the states,” Sher said.
Support for two-way international SMS messaging in more than 80 countries will be implemented in the first quarter of this year, and overlaying GPS data from cell phones onto maps to locate key personnel is in the works.