Sounding the Alarm at Lone Star
In our interconnected world, the vast majority of people within a college campus community think little of an emergency and how the institution will communicate with them—until it happens. Then, they want timely information on what is occurring, what to do, and where they can learn more.
There is an assumption that if anything happens, everyone will receive a text message instantly, the faculty and staff will know what to do, and there will be an announcement over a public address system. Expectations are set.
Recent events, like the shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College in October 2015, have students, faculty, parents, and guests inquiring about the notification equipment and procedures in place on their campus. They want assurances that the emergency systems will work when needed.
Many institutions have opt-in text messaging solutions and public address systems used for a broad range of services, including special events. In an emergency, speakers, sirens, and horns are often the first warnings received that danger is present or imminent.
To meet the expectation of the campus community, schools must understand what emergency communications are necessary, what the law requires, and what the school can afford.
This was the challenge facing Lone Star College (LSC) in 2010. The largest higher education institution in the Houston area, with six colleges, eight centers, two university centers, and LSC-Online, LSC provides high-quality academic transfer, workforce education, and career training programs to more than 83,000 credit students each semester, and a total enrollment of 95,000 students. It would need a robust emergency communication system to support its diverse campus community.
CRAFTING A SOLUTION
When LSC decided to create its notification system, LoneStarAlert, in 2010, it used a team approach, crafting a selection committee and choosing a sponsor who could move the project forward. An LSC vice chancellor responsible for safety and security was chosen as the sponsor—an indicator of the project’s importance within LSC.
LSC then began selecting its committee members, including a cross section of the organization: administrative, college relations, compliance, emergency management, facilities, IT, law enforcement, procurement, student services, and tenants.
The committee also included individuals who preferred the status quo system at LSC, which had six colleges and six alert systems with their own name, workflow, vendor, and contracts. Having individuals on the committee who represented each of these systems made them realize that one solution with one name was a better overall system for LSC. Because of this, these individuals felt they had a voice and were being heard, making them great ambassadors for the new system.
Once the committee was assembled, LSC began assessing its environment. It knew it had different systems and various levels of sophistication because the campus had buildings that ranged from 40 to less than five years old. The buildings were also geographically dispersed among the city of Houston and Harris and Montgomery Counties in Texas, each of which has its own building and fire codes.
To tackle this service area—approximately the size of Rhode Island—LSC first targeted the LSC-Greenspoint Center, a mid-rise atrium building with the most stringent fire ordinances of all the buildings on LSC campuses.
LSC also targeted buildings within two colleges: LSC-North Harris and LSC-Kingwood. LSC-North Harris was chosen because it is close to a major airport and runway. LSC-Kingwood was chosen because it falls under three jurisdictions—half the campus sits in Montgomery County, the remaining half is in Harris County, and the entire campus is annexed by the City of Houston.
Then, over a five-year period, LSC created a mass notification system (MNS) with multiple levels of redundancy.
THE LONE STAR SYSTEM
LSC implemented LoneStarAlert in 2011, consolidating its various emergency campus text messaging services under one solution. LoneStarAlert is a Web-based warning system that can send voice and text alerts to registered individuals when an emergency occurs.
The system works by issuing an alert over speakers, via a prerecorded or live message, and through e-mail messages in English and Spanish. For example, for a lockdown the prerecorded message says: “Attention. Lockdown now. There is an emergency on campus. Go into the nearest room or closet and lock the door.” Messages also instruct the campus community to wait for further instructions while they remain in a safe place.
LoneStarAlert also uses text messages of 90 characters or less—in English and Spanish. For an active shooter situation, messages say “Lockdown now. Emergency on campus. Go to nearest safe place, stay calm, and wait for further instructions.”
More than 100,000 users are registered for the alert system, and it is only used for emergency messaging and testing of the system. Users are added through an automated system at the beginning of the semester, and users also have the option to self-register.
This information is collected in compliance with the State of Texas Education Code Section 51.218 Emergency Alert System. The code requires institutions of higher education to gather a student’s personal e-mail, cell phone, or telephone number to deliver emergency communiques; using only LSC’s e-mail and voice mail system does not satisfy the requirement.
This information must be added to LSC’s LoneStarAlert system once provided, typically during registration. This process is repeated at the start of each semester.
The system is also designed as an opt-out system, rather than an opt-in (choosing to participate) system, in compliance with the code. LSC does not allow this data to be used for any other purpose.
Some users are still reluctant to register for LoneStarAlert for fear that their information will be sold to third-party marketers. Ensuring this personal information is only used for emergency use not only keeps LSC in compliance with state regulations, it also shows that the institution is committed to protecting users’ privacy.
LSC has made a commitment to closely manage this information and grant access to it only on a need-to-know basis and as authorized.
TARGETING THE LSC POPULATION
For an MNS to work, the institution has to think of the recipients it wants to target and ensure the system is capable of sending alert messages to those target groups.
LSC identified its target groups as employees, distribution lists (internal and external response teams), dynamic groups (created as needed), geographical locations, networked equipment, students, contractors, tenants, and guests.
LSC also needed to consider its unique status as a commuter college without campus housing. Some students, employees, and guests visit different campus locations more than once throughout the semester. Sending an emergency communication to just one given area would limit the reach of the MNS, and might miss some individuals who are en route and others who want to know what is occurring on any LSC campus.
Instead, the system would need to be structured to send emergency messages to all registered users, regardless of their location. This system would be easier for LSC to administer and more desirable for the LSC community.
LSC also knew that accessibility and inclusion would be key to the success of its MNS. The system would need to be accessible to individuals with physical, sensory, mental health, and cognitive or intellectual disabilities that affect their ability to function independently.
The system would also need to be inclusive of seniors, those with limited English proficiency, and unaccompanied minors on campus. LSC has dual education programs for high-school students, Discovery College for children during the summer, full- and part-time day care centers, high schools, and public libraries that all provide opportunities for underage guests on campus.
To reach these individuals, LSC would need to design its MNS to provide information online and to enroll them through LoneStarAlert. Because minors cannot be asked directly for personal contact information, LSC would have to work with leaders of these various groups to contact parents and guardians—who would then provide the information that then allowed their child to be enrolled in the system.
LSC also knew that its system would need to reach the public libraries, four-year educational partners, school systems, executive conference centers, and commercial tenants that are a part of its campus. To reach these stakeholders, LSC would have to provide instructions and a means for individuals to self-register in LoneStarAlert.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT INTEGRATOR
LSC awarded its initial MNS contract to a local system integrator, Convergint Technologies. They worked together to create LSC’s wide-area MNS, which is used for any hazard or threat that poses an imminent or present danger and requires immediate action. This includes an evacuation, shelter-in-place, or lockdown scenario. Advisories and alerts that do not pose an imminent or present danger are sent out via LSC e-mail.
LSC’s MNS is deployed using Windows and Microsoft SQL Servers in a secured and high availability environment. The servers are clustered into a shared pool of monitored resources, so if a host fails, the system immediately responds by restarting each affected host from a different host.
The MNS encodes and decodes audible signals and live-voice messages transmitted across a TCP/IP local area network using voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). LoneStarAlert text, voice mail, and e-mail are delivered using a Web-based application hosted by the provider.
LSC’s wide-area MNS command system is located at the main administrative offices and is interconnected with each campus’ central control station, comprising the total system.
Each campus is classified as a zone, and each building within a zone is considered a sub-zone. Most campuses have sub-zones that are interconnected. This configuration enables activation of prerecorded, live voice, or tone signals that can be sent to a sub-zone, zones, or the total system, providing redundancy throughout the system.
LSC police dispatch is responsible for immediately distributing voice messages or alert signals. It is authorized—and empowered—to send emergency messages to the affected populations using either prerecorded messages or live messaging via the wide-area MNS and LoneStarAlert.
Dispatchers will send an alert when requested by an officer on the scene, or when requested by senior leadership. They will also issue an alert if there is credible information coming to the dispatch center that warrants sending a message.
As part of its initial installation, LSC included speakers for common areas with signals adjusted so the message could be heard through a closed door. However, the level of noise in the area impacts the level of intelligible voice or tone that can be heard.
Additionally, LSC has video displays at all of its campuses where emergency messages are displayed using a digital management system. This ensures that individuals who cannot hear the emergency alerts do not miss them.
LSC also uses a buddy system where a buddy will help ensure a person with functional needs is supported, and first responders are aware of their last known positions and conditions. This information is then captured—when provided—in each campus fire safety plan.
As an additional measure, most LSC campus community members have cell phones. This enables those who are deaf or have other hearing impairments to receive emergency text messages and, where available, two-way communications using the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS).
The TRS bridges the communication gap between voice telephone users and people with hearing impairments by allowing users anywhere in the United States to dial 711 to be connected to a TRS operator. The operator then serves as a link for the call, relaying the text of the calling party in voice to the called party, and converting to text what the called party voices back to the calling party.
Following the initial setup, in-house resources assumed most of the responsibility for supporting the system over a five-year period. However, the system integrator supplements LSC resources.
Additional system integrators are also used to provide support for the MNS. Sharing the service responsibilities among multiple vendors provides redundancy in the event a vendor is unable to provide services to one or more of LSC’s locations.
Whether a fire exit drill or a lockdown drill, testing of emergency communications processes and systems is a base requirement. LSC has a rolling three-year sustainability and exercise program that’s part of the LSC Emergency Management Plan, which tests the LoneStarAlert and its MNS.
In the beginning, some questioned the approach and anticipated backlash from disrupting operations by testing the systems. However, LSC quickly learned that the process built confidence within the community that the school is doing its part to keep its campus safe.
Testing also gave users who were registered incorrectly and did not receive text message alerts a chance to inform LSC. Users who did receive texts and e-mail alerts could also report how long it took to receive them.
This helped LSC determine that, on average, more than 95 percent of registered users received text and e-mail alerts within two to three minutes of activation.
On one occasion when LoneStarAlert was not tested during a larger emergency management drill, LSC received negative feedback, debunking the myth that testing the system during normal operations is viewed negatively. This approach has helped LSC align its MNS with its brand.
Denise Walker is chief emergency management officer at Lone Star College System, responsible for policy and direction on emergency management; safety and security audits; fire safety; environment, public health, and safety; and victim advocacy. She serves as the chair of the Greater Houston Local Emergency Planning Committee and is executive member of the Texas Emergency Management Advisory Committee. She is the author of several books, including Mass Notification and Crisis Communications: Planning, Preparedness, and Systems.