Photo via Flickr (Nesstor)
It's no secret that many campuses have been struggling with the technical and policy challenges associated with emergency SMS text messaging systems. Getting students, employees and parents to enroll so they'll receive alerts is one issue. Spam filters and throughput are other obstacles. And let's not forget about the database management problems.
But what if there were a system that addressed these issues at no cost to the public? This is what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had in mind in 2008 when it issued a series of orders adopting requirements for a Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) that would allow commercial mobile service providers to transmit emergency alerts to their subscribers.
Broadcasting Eliminates Throughput Issues
Unlike current SMS text alert systems that transmit messages individually to cell phones, CMAS uses broadcast technology. Every cell site sends out the message once, which eliminates the throughput/network traffic problems and delays associated with many SMS solutions. CMAS also geographically targets its notifications and eliminates the need for a prioritized database.
Additionally, enrollment challenges are avoided because CMAS functionality is built into cell phones, and the general public will automatically receive the service on their handsets unless they opt out. This means that visitors and tourists who wouldn't normally receive alerts because they aren't enrolled in the traditional SMS text alert system would be notified during an emergency if they were in or near the area where the incident occurs.
"When considering an event, such as a Hazmat spill on a busy freeway near several towns and perhaps a college campus or hospital, CMAS may deliver a plentitude of benefits," says Siemens Emergency Communications Specialist Berkly Trumbo. "Additionally, we foresee our technologies receiving a CMAS alert and being capable of initiating an instant, multimodal campus alert as previously defined by campus safety personnel in emergency communications operating procedures."
Avoid Long-term SMS Contracts
Benefits like these are hard to ignore, so should institutions that currently have SMS solutions in place consider dropping SMS alerting when CMAS goes live in 2012? Although the details of CMAS are currently being hammered out, campus officials may soon want to at least revisit their current SMS choices, says Art Botterell, an emergency information systems consultant who previously worked for FEMA and helped develop the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) for the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department.
"I think any university that has signed more than a two- or three-year contract is liable to find itself a little embarrassed by the end of the contract," he says.
Botterell believes that current SMS solutions will eventually be relegated to sending non-emergency messages, covering incidents like road closures and school cancellations, while CMAS will handle emergency alerts.
Other experts, however, believe CMAS would most likely only be activated during major crises. They point to many types of emergencies where it probably wouldn't be used.
"Numerous incidents occur on and around college campuses, which will warrant an alert or lockdown specific to the campus or local geography but would not call for a CMAS-type of alert," says Trumbo.
Cooper Notification's Vice President of Homeland Security Solutions Rick Tiene says another challenge with CMAS is that, unlike SMS, it can't target specific demographics. "CMAS doesn't have the ability to hit people in a certain response team or who have a special need for a certain type of information."
Who Will Send the Messages?
How well CMAS will be able to notify campus populations about local emergencies will most likely depend on which entities or agencies will be authorized to issue the alerts. Will campuses have any authority? If so, will those authorities include the campus police chief, emergency manager, chancellor or someone else? Will CMAS be managed by the states, the National Weather Service or some other agency? What process will be used to vet the appropriate individuals to administer the system at the local level?
"I'm not sure FEMA has defined that yet," says Botterell. "It's tricky because the people in FEMA who are working on this don't know anything about how local safety systems work and to a large extent, don't really care."
Additionally, he says that special districts and campuses pose a significant challenge in fitting into the federal government's plan.
"Life gets really complicated because it's not clear where they attach to the hierarchy," adds Botterell. "What happens when you have a water district that spans parts of four counties?"
With larger campuses, it would certainly make sense for at least the campus police chiefs, chancellors and emergency managers to have the authority to send CMAS messages. Tiene, who, along with Botterell, has been asked by FEMA to comment on CMAS, says the system will most likely be limited to government jurisdictions. "That may change in the future," he says, "but there is a desire to maintain pretty strict control over who can launch a CMAS message."
According to Botterell, "All of these issues are out there, and I'm not sure that any of them are really getting answered clearly. To the extent that they have been worked out, they've been worked out inside the Beltway in ways that may or may not make sense on campus, in individual communities or in individual states."
Robin Hattersley Gray is executive editor of Campus Safety magazine. She can be reached at (310) 533-2534 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is your campus' mass notification system CAP-compliant? Here are two reasons why it should be.