Campus Mass Notification: Is Your Campus Prepared For A Crisis?
After two all-campus lockdowns due to firearms threats, Mesa Community College Public Safety officers needed a mass notification system fast. Learn how they built a flexible system that uses existing infrastructure that can easily support future expansion.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2008
By Steve Corich
The following article will be of interest to those involved with implementing mass notification systems (MNS) in a campus environment. The 2007 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm Code®, includes provisions for fire alarm systems to accommodate MNS. It also includes a new Annex E, which provides guidance for the application, installation, and performance of MNS. Because the system described below was conceived of and substantially developed before the 2007 edition of NFPA 72 was issued, the system did not consider some of the recommendations of Annex E. However, the process and system arrangement described draw many parallels and address common issues.
A new NFPA Technical Committee on Emergency Communications Systems has been formed to further develop requirements for these systems. The next edition of NFPA 72 is expected to include significant revisions, including a new technical chapter providing mandatory requirements in lieu of recommendations currently in Annex E.
— Lee Richardson, NFPA senior electrical engineer and NFPA 72 staff liaison.
Views of Mesa Community College's library.
Recent college shootings have driven home a number of lessons for law enforcement officials. One of those is the importance of rapidly notifying students and employees of emergencies so that life-saving action can begin immediately. Officials at Virginia Tech were criticized for waiting too long to notify the campus population of events unfolding during last year’s campus shooting, and nearly every college in the United States has examined or is examining its ability to notify students and employees of danger.
Some state legislatures have recently passed laws requiring their schools and universities to implement reliable and comprehensive mass notification systems (MNS). The Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990 requires that all postsecondary institutions make “timely warnings to the campus community about crimes that pose an ongoing threat to students and employees.” Above and beyond state or federal legislation, we in public safety have a moral and ethical obligation to provide the safest possible environment for our students and employees.
Mesa Community College (MCC) in Arizona recently experienced two all-campus lockdowns as a result of threats by nonstudent intruders involving firearms. Sworn MCC Public Safety officers safely and successfully dealt with the threats with assistance from the City of Mesa Police Department.
Although the college’s ability to lock down in a timely manner still presents minor challenges, our recently augmented MNS operated well. One valuable lesson we gleaned from our experience was to keep all processes as simple as possible. Generally speaking, the more complex the process, the more things can go awry.
The campus and the system
MCC, established more than 40 years ago as part of the Maricopa County Community College District, is a nonresidential institution located in the east valley of metropolitan Phoenix. It boasts two comprehensive campuses with an enrollment of more than 27,000 students. The main campus consists of 44 buildings located on more than 300 acres (121 hectares) of land in bustling southwest Mesa. The majority of the original buildings are of freestanding, slump block construction. When the main campus was first built, the college was surrounded by farmland and served a city of less than 60,000. Now, the campus is surrounded by single- and multi-family housing, a large hospital, and a mall, and is at the intersection of two major highways. The city population is approaching half a million.
When the college was built, little thought was given to the need for timely mass notification and the need for lockdowns or evacuations. The Public Safety Department has traditionally monitored fire alarms and emergency telephones, but until the beginning of this decade, it had not seen a need to act proactively in those areas. Since then, the college has experienced its share of big-city crime. As a result, MCC has been playing catch-up since early 2002 to ensure that students, faculty, and staff are as safe as possible.
At the time, there were few off-the-shelf solutions for mass notification. The college Crisis Management Team, the team responsible for managing all major emergencies on campus, considered a number of MNS solutions including combinations of sirens and loudspeakers. The team settled on a redundant system of Cisco Systems Internet Protocol (IP) phones and strobe/siren/text notification beacons from ALERTUS Technologies. Since IP telephony is not known for extreme reliability, parallel efforts were undertaken to ensure the system would not be lost in a power failure. Critical systems, including the two mentioned above, have been placed on an uninterruptible power supply, and plans are underway to supplement this system with generators.
VOICE-COMMUNICATION FIRE ALARM STANDARDS
Other standards pertinent to the installation and testing of voice-communication fire alarm systems include, but aren’t limited to:
• OSHA, U.S. Department of Labor 29 CFR 1910 Subpart L 1910.165¬, Employee Alarm Systems
• ADA/ABA/ICC ANSI A17.1, Americans with Disabilities Act/Architectural Barriers Act/Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities
• ANSI S3.2, Method of Measuring the Intelligibility of Speech Over Communication Systems
• ANSI S3.41-1990, Audible Emergency Evacuation Signal
• IEC 60849 (superseded by preceding ISO publications, but still referenced by the 2002 and 2007 editions of NFPA 72), Sound Systems for Emergency Purposes
• ISO 7240-16, Fire Detection and Alarm Systems, Part 16, Sound System Control and Indicating Equipment
• ISO 7240-19, Fire Detection and Alarm Systems, Part 19, Design, Installation, Commissioning, and Service of Sound Systems for Emergency Purposes (both ISO standards have superseded IEC 60849)
• UL 864, 9th ed., Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems
• FEMA CPG 1-17, 1980, Outdoor Warning Systems Guide
Chad R. Barnes, CFPS, SFPE, CPTED, PSNA, CHS, is manager of the Life Safety Services Department at C&S Companies.
MCC’s Information Technology Services (ITS) worked closely with the Public Safety Department to convert our outdated telephone system. The department facilitated the acquisition and installation of approximately 1,500 IP phones, which were installed in every classroom, office, and meeting room on campus and gave us excellent interior coverage for our emergency announcements. Since all of MCC’s telephones are now on the data network, and because all the phones understand the IP protocol, we are able to interface with the phones programmatically. Two key applications in the area of safety were subsequently introduced:
911 integration: The MCC data center houses a server that is programmed to watch for certain numeric patterns while our users are dialing the phone. One of these patterns is 911. If anyone on any of our campuses dials 911, an audible alert, similar to an Amber Alert, is played in all of our first-responder offices, and a screen of user information, such as name, location, and time of day, pops up on all computers. If one of our first responders is on another active telephone call, the application automatically mutes the microphone and allows the first responder to hear and respond to the notification.
Emergency broadcast: MCC has also engineered an application that, in emergencies, can issue alerts to all phones at the same time. This has massive amounts of flexibility and can be programmed to respond to one or all buildings. We have also engineered this system to play pre-recorded waveform audio format (WAV) files at full phone speaker volume if we want to repeat a message for situations such as hazardous materials spills. These messages play directly over the speaker on each phone at full volume without ringing. The speaker switches on, and our message, either prerecorded or live, is played at full volume.
Of course, neither of these applications would have been possible without an active partnership between the Public Safety staff and MCC ITS. We also have a strong relationship with our vendors and the software engineering firm Syn_Apps, which created a dynamic infrastructure for providing these kinds of tools.
A bigger challenge
Having announcements heard in large campus common areas, outdoors, and on athletic fields presented a bit more of a challenge. We decided to broadcast the IP phone announcement over loudspeakers strategically placed in the library, cafeteria, student activities areas, and gymnasiums. Outdoor speakers were mounted in the center of campus and at several athletic fields.
The college also purchased 60 notification beacons and mounted them in many of these open areas for redundant coverage. We particularly appreciated the beacons’ ability to interface with external audiovisual devices such as sirens, strobes, televisions, and scrolling marquees. We feel that these types of displays are well suited to notifying a portion of our disabled population and complying with ADA requirements. The beacons are located in notifications zones that are consistent with planned evacuation routes, as well as common areas adjacent to lockdown locations. The audible signal emitted from the beacon is distinct from the college fire alarms to minimize confusion.
The beacons are activated using desktop software strategically placed in several Public Safety offices and the dispatch center. System activation is facilitated through our campus-wide wireless routers, and we have the option of activating all beacons or select beacons covering a particular area, depending upon need. Power to the beacons is through an AC/DC adapter that we’ve hardwired and wall mounted at a height of 7 feet (2 meters) above ground level. The beacons are equipped with Ni-Cd rechargeable backup batteries in case of a power failure.
A standard emergency scenario necessitating activation of the MNS would involve a number of critical steps, another reason to keep the process as simple as possible. Our fire and MNS systems are actively monitored around the clock by trained and authorized Public Safety personnel. When the Public Safety Department becomes aware of an emergency, the assigned police officer or dispatcher assesses it.
Once he or she determines that the situation warrants lockdown or evacuation, then that person activates the MNS. Emergency broadcasts can be made by authorized personnel from any of the college IP phones or from any telephone, including mobile phones.
Once the application is accessed, a password is entered, and the selected telephones are opened. As a time-saving feature, we have prerecorded some emergency voice messages that can be played by entering a four-number code, or the official can “go live” to give specific directions to the campus population. Messages are preceded by a series of emergency tones. The entire process takes less than 30 seconds.
The beacon system is activated via computer and, in our case, would be activated simultaneously with the emergency broadcast over IP phones. Activation is fairly intuitive and simply involves writing up to 500 characters of text or customizing a pre-scripted message and disseminating the alert to the selected beacons. The entire process takes less than 30 seconds.
Standard emergency procedures would necessitate that a number of events occur very quickly, including immediate response by all available police and security personnel, notification and coordination with the local police and fire department, and notification of appropriate college leaders. Our dispatch center is responsible for relaying information to and from the responding officers, and it coordinates the capture of as much information as possible on our extensive CCTV system.
By having the MNS housed on our discrete network, we have made the notification process portable. In the event that the Public Safety office is taken offline due to fire or proximity to the emergency at hand, the notifications can be made from any telephone or network-capable PC.
The training process
The MCC Public Safety Department has designed a two-pronged training process to ensure that all affected parties react appropriately once the MNS is activated. Our police officers have partnered with local law enforcement and have completed a comprehensive rapid-response training course that follows a common national curriculum for the proper law enforcement response to “active shooters.” The training also parallels existing incident command system protocols. We are actively engaged with our students and employees in training sessions that cover their reaction to campus emergencies.
Future enhancements to the existing emergency notification suite of applications involve instant communication with students, faculty, and staff using mobile phones and personal digital assistants. MCC intends to build a system where students can receive emergency text announcements over their mobile phones, as well as an opt-in service for college news.
MCC is also embarking on new digital signage systems, which will be integrated into this suite of tools. In the event of an emergency, plasma and liquid crystal display screens throughout the college will broadcast the alerts. We believe that the use of multiple technologies to deliver public address, visual messaging, and text and email messaging will provide optimal coverage for our college.
To enhance our lockdown procedure, the college is in the process of installing new door hardware that will allow for a simple, one-button solution to securing nearly every door on campus. This system, combined with our MNS, will enable our staff to quickly and effectively notify our campus population so that appropriate immediate action can be taken.
One does not need to look far to see that the market is now saturated with university and college MNS solutions, solutions that may not fit all institutions. To help, the International Association of College Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA.org) has outlined a four-point strategy of risk management to prevent and mitigate active shooter situations: (1) Promote the use of IACLEA’s Threat and Risk Assessment tool to help identify and prioritize vulnerabilities. (2) Collaborate with multi-disciplinary teams to create behavioral threat assessment models. (3) Fast-track our efforts to develop a comprehensive tool to assist campuses make sound decisions about security and MNS. (4) Work with the Bureau of Justice Assistance to ensure that rapid-response training is available to campuses that need it. We believe this four-point approach addresses potential gaps that may exist on some campuses and establishes a framework to address safety and security challenges.
Steve Corich is public safety director for Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona.