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Spreading the Word

BATES COLLEGE in Lewiston, Maine, protects its 155-year-old 109-acre campus with electronic access controls and surveillance cameras. It also has 150 blue-light emergency communications stations located throughout the campus, but none of these systems addressed the critical issue of how to get warnings or instructions to the school’s 2,800 students, faculty, and staff during an unfolding campus crisis.

Tom Carey, director of security and campus safety at Bates, was already aware of the issue in 2005 when he was asked to chair a subcommittee on domestic preparedness training needs for colleges and universities that was established via a grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). What he heard while on the committee brought the issue to the forefront of his concerns. As the subcommittee was holding its planned series of meetings, Hurricane Katrina struck, and lessons from that event became a part of the focus.

The subcommittee members heard from representatives of one college that was in the hurricane’s path and had no way to notify students on campus that the levies had been breached. The security director of another university north of New Orleans took in a great number of displaced people from the city and had no way to direct them through the campus to shelters and services. Though the challenges were different, the notification needs were the same.

Shortly after the meetings, Carey began researching his options. But then another seminal event occurred that further spurred action. He was in a meeting with one solution provider on April 16, 2007, when Seung-hui Cho carried out his campaign of terror, killing 32 people on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and then himself. A colleague of Carey’s was visiting Virginia Tech that day and was held at a secure location. When she told Carey of her experience, “The project took on a new urgency,” he says.

The school already had one means of communication: e-mail. The e-mail system had always worked as intended, but Carey was concerned that many people turn their cell phones off or leave them in their rooms while they are out walking around on the campus. “What about the kids who are out playing Frisbee?” Carey asks. “We needed a way to direct them away from danger in a timely manner.”

Carey continued to explore options. One of the alternatives was to install the type of sirens used for civil defense purposes. “We considered them, but people hear sirens all the time, and we worried that people might just ignore it,” says Carey. “And, even if they take notice of the siren, there are no instructions.”

As Carey researched the issue in 2008, the economy was going through the most severe downturn since the depression of the 1930s, and the school’s budget was not immune to the stress, so he faced constraints on what he could spend to solve the problem. Carey found an affordable solution when talking with Maine Radio, the company that provides the college’s two-way radio system. The company recommended the LoudMouth wireless public address system by Ritron, Inc., of Carmel, Indiana. The system enables personnel to use a port able two-way radio, base station, or mobile radio to broadcast live messages over speakers from up to two miles away.

Each unit has two parts—a base station and a set of speakers. The base station is hard-wired on the inside of the building and picks up the broadcast of VHF or UHF radio frequency via antenna. The base station acts as another handheld radio. The two speakers are mounted on the outside of the building and are pointed at 90 degrees off center to allow one unit to broadcast coverage over an entire street. The system can be used with repeaters for greater coverage, but the campus didn’t require that, says Carey.

Each device—consisting of two speakers and the base unit—costs $700. One benefit of this approach was that it could be expanded as the budget permitted, so Carey only purchased one unit in 2008. Since then he has added units as the budget allowed. Now, the college has a total of seven units placed strategically throughout the campus.

The first units were placed closest to center of the campus where the majority of the academic buildings are located. With the seven units in place, coverage includes a major street where several college- owned residences are located as well as the quad, the football field, and several dormitories. Carey plans to purchase an additional two units to cover the remaining campus areas—another residential street and the rest of the sports fields.

Security can broadcast live messages over the system. Each message is preceded by a specific tone designed to signal various groups. For example, one tone notifies EMTs that they are needed. Another tone means that security information is about to be dispensed. Security dispatchers are trained on the system and are charged with putting out a message on Carey’s instruction.

“This is an elegant solution,” says Carey. “We use the e-mail system to provide more detailed information and use the speakers to get crucial information out immediately.”

The units have not been called into action in a real emergency. However, a recent DHS grant to the city of Lewiston put the system through its paces in a live, large-scale training exercise that took place last summer. The college was included in the exercise along with city police, firefighters, and first responders. There were staff and faculty members on campus at the time as well as some students participating in the summer session. Carey also enlisted the help of role players to increase the number of people in the exercise.

The test involved a simulated chemical emergency. In the scenario, ammonia gas—used to keep the ice frozen at a campus hockey arena—was released into the town. “We had to warn students, faculty, and visitors to stay away from the hockey rink, and inform those on campus to shelter in place,” says Carey.

Security officers from Bates were the first responders. They announced the emergency via e-mail system and the LoudMouth units. The speaker system proved a valuable resource. Carey was able to warn people to stay away from certain areas depending upon which way the wind was blowing.

“When we field tested the wireless PA system in the training exercise, it worked exactly as we hoped it would,” says Carey. “Its unique alert noise, distinct from police, fire, and ambulance sirens, got everyone’s attention.”

Carey was also pleased to be able to deliver updates to keep people apprised of the latest information. “The real-time message got an immediate response from those who needed to hear it,” says Carey. “It helped with safety and reduced the number of callers who otherwise would’ve flooded the phone lines asking questions.”