When Texas A&M University (TAMU) received a serious campus-wide bomb scare in October 2012, the school’s “Code Maroon” alerts were delivered to more than 60,000 students, faculty and staff within minutes.
With just a couple of computer clicks at the campus dispatch center, simultaneous SMS text messages went out, as did a message on Twitter (@TAMUCodeMaroon), an RSS feed, and pop-ups that appeared on computers connected to the campus network. At the same time, audible emergency messages were broadcast on the campus radio station KAMU-FM, Emergency Alert System (EAS) Radios, and over classroom speakers, while text messages scrolled on the campus cable TV channel and any TV on the campus cable system.
The messaged urged people to evacuate the sprawling 5,000-acre, 700-building campus without using their cars so no traffic jams would result, and the huge campus was safely evacuated.
Similar alerts were received within minutes when a fatal shooting occurred near the school in August 2012, warning people to stay away from the area (see slide show), and during tornadoes and a rare ice storm that shut down the campus.
Different Delivery Systems
In all, Texas A&M can now send simultaneous messages 11 different ways to alert students, faculty, staff and parents to emergency situations on campus, thanks to AtHoc’s Emergency Mass Notification System software utilizing the San Mateo, Calif.-based company’s IWSAlerts Unified Mass Notification system.
“Texas A&M has a high culture of safety, from the top down to protect students, faculty and the community,” says Ly Tran, AtHoc’s co-founder and vice president. “We give them a system and honor their privacy. It’s up to them to decide how to use the data.”
Text alerts are among most popular at TAMU, with SMS messages taking 5 to 7 minutes to be aggregated per cell carrier by a third-party vendor and delivered, as opposed to 10 to 20 minutes via email, while voice messages over speakers and radio takes only about a minute. The school tries to keep texts messages short to fit Twitter’s 140-character limit, and they sometimes contain a link or direct users to the university’s emergency response Web page for additional information.
Simultaneous messaging was a big upgrade for the university, which implemented an emergency response system in 2008 after the massacre at Virginia Tech left 33 people dead. The first system TAMU used, however, only offered email and text messaging, each of which had to be sent out separately.
“We need a variety of methods to get to people,” says Charley Clark, associate vice president for University Risk and Compliance at Texas A&M. We wanted to be able to issue one message at one time and that would be broadcast in a variety of methods.”
Not only does the AtHoc software send out messages quickly and effectively, it has helped integrate several of the campus’ communications systems. AtHoc offers hardware modules to enable IP connections to speakers, social media, weather alerting, and personnel data.
Fortunately, about 280 classrooms at TAMU have loudspeakers already on the university’s IP network, allowing audible alerts in classrooms where cell phones are required to be off. The same message is broadcast over the campus radio system and on emergency response radios. Anyone watching TV connected to the campus cable TV system or watching the campus TV station will see a message on screen as well.
A dispatcher at the campus police station can send the messages via a Web-based dashboard, and send separate messages to certain groups to direct emergency response teams, for example. The school’s IT staff worked with dispatchers on training them on how to use the system.
TAMU’s primary and secondary software licenses allowed the system to exist on different servers that mirrored each other and required that the databases on each, containing all the contacts and delivery methods for the alerting system, were synched and up to date. An upgrade to a virtual networking environment with database clustering has eased that burden and now keeps that data up to date, says Marlin Crouse, TAMU’s senior lead software applications developer.
TAMU has also dedicated itself to transparency, publishing the results of every alert since 2010 and the how long it takes for the messages to be sent by the various means on its Code Maroon website.
The university is also in the process of adding other communications methods to the mix, including voice alerts through fire alarm panel speakers, digital displays in the lobbies and other public areas and bringing desktop pop-up messaging from 5,000 to 40,000 networked computers.
A smartphone app to enable messaging will also be available in the fall. The app will act like a text message and may be delivered even faster, Clark says. “We grew up with the system and are adding other methods as they are available.”
Despite the growing need for emergency notification at schools, advanced systems like that one at Texas A&M remains somewhat of an exception for something that may quickly become the rule.
“It’s still new,” says AtHoc’s Tran. “Universities are generally open campuses. They were never quite required to have an enterprise-class integrated alerting system. But the more they get into it [with simple solutions], the more comprehensive solutions they want.”