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High Alert

​When a gunman opened fire at Florida State University (FSU) in November 2014, the school’s police department was able to warn the entire campus within minutes, thanks to its mass emergency notification system. “Alerts went out within two-and-a-half minutes of the first gunshot,” says David Bujak, director of emergency management at the Tallahassee-based university.    

A dispatcher immediately activated the preprogrammed message warning of a “dangerous situation” with the simple touch of a button. “As soon as she heard the first couple phone calls, she opened the door and hit the button,” Bujak tells Security Management. 

Three people, one of whom is likely permanently disabled, were injured by the gunman. The shooter, Myron May, a former student at the university, was killed by police on the scene. Without the mass notification system, Bujak fears that the incident could have been much worse.

FSU campus police operate the safety and security program, which consists of a sworn police force. While participating in the university’s semiannual security gap analysis in 2013, security and the FSU administration defined its mass notification goals. The university wanted to reach people “inside, outside, and by your side,” says Bujak, meaning no matter where people are on campus, they would be notified of an alert. 

Bujak cites human behavioral studies that show it takes people three forms of input before they react in an emergency. “Our concept with the alert system is the same thing. I’d rather bombard you with multiple delivery methods [because] if you get multiple alerts you’re going to know something is up,” he says. 

The overall project, known as the FSU Alert Emergency Notification System, has been in place for several years. The system “is actually a hybrid collection of mass notification providers combined to maximize our ability to get the word out in a timely manner,” Bujak says. However, in June 2013, the university added the Alertus Desktop Alert Client and the Alertus Beacon by Alertus Technologies.

According to Bujak, the university purchased the Alertus products to enhance indoor notification. The existing mass notification system included indoor sirens that could also communicate a custom message to building occupants during an emergency. But of the campus’s 473 buildings, only 60 had modern voice-capable fire alarms. 

“So our ability to do indoor notification with fire alarms was limited to only a portion of the buildings on campus, and to do the others would be cost-prohibitive because to replace an entire fire alarm system was pricey,” Bujak notes. That’s where the Alertus Desktop Alert Client and the Alertus Beacon came in, which he says were cheaper than replacing the fire alarm systems. 

When the emergency notification system is activated by campus police, the wall-mounted Alertus Beacon flashes strobe lights and makes a sirenlike noise. The Alertus Beacon also has a screen that displays an LED message, which can be tailored depending on the circumstance. The messages can be read from up to 15 feet away. In addition, the Alertus Desktop client sends a pop-up message to the screen of any desktop equipped with the feature. FSU has a number of technology-enhanced classrooms where teachers use a projector, and the desktop alert client is connected to those machines. 

The main challenge the university faced was integrating the new system into the existing IT network. FSU has a decentralized IT structure—different colleges own and operate their own infrastructure—so the installation process for the Alertus Desktop was a bit slower than it would have been if all of the buildings were under one department, explains Bujak. “Once we got comfortable that the desktops were working properly, we sent out memos to all the IT managers on campus and said, ‘here it is, download it, install it…’ And we’ve had really good participation in that regard,” he notes. So far, the university has pushed the client to 1,400 machines. 

Either the Alertus Beacon or the fire alarm voice capability is now manda­tory for new buildings that have a capacity of 20 or more people. However, there have been challenges to deploying the mass notification system, notes Bujak. For example, each beacon requires an Ethernet connection. “Many of our technology-enhanced classrooms do not have ample Ethernet connections available for the beacons,” he points out. So rather than dedicate resources specifically to installing beacons, he says, the technology-enhanced classrooms included the beacons as part of a broader upgrade program they are rolling out to those rooms instead.

FSU originally hoped to offer the desktop alerting client to the public from its website for a free download so that neighbors and parents could also be connected to the system. 

“We’ve since been told by Alertus that once you start pushing 5,000 [electronic recipients], the servers are going to start having a hard time getting it out to everyone in a timely manner,” he says. “So we backtracked on that idea of making it just completely free-for-all, but we have made it available to pretty much any university-owned or managed computer.” 

During the campus shooting, Bujak says that security was pleased with the system’s deployment. “People recount seeing multiple computer screens all in rows light up with the desktop alert, and it was pretty much simultaneous with the indoor siren messages they received, and the text messages they received,” he notes.