Over the past four years, campuses across the nation have adopted or updated their audio mass notification systems, be they PAs, giant voice systems or voice evacuation systems. SMS text message and E-mail emergency alert systems have also become quite popular, particularly at institutions of higher education.
But how can an audio emergency message reach those individuals who are hearing impaired or out of ear shot of the notification system?
And what about visitors who aren't signed up for the institution's text message emergency alerting program and are unable to receive emergency alerts? We also can't forget the people on campus who, for whatever reason, have turned off their cell phones and computers.
Although emergency communications via audio systems and personal devices, such as mobile phones, are excellent solutions, they don't address the visual component of mass notification. Fortunately, digital signage (along with strobes) can help fill this gap.
Despite its traditional use as a marketing and general public information tool, a post- Virginia Tech incident report named digital signage as one of the most effective methods for delivering emergency notices to the student body inside buildings.
Digital Signage Delivers Alerts Quickly
Generally, unlike SMS text messages and E-mails, which can take several minutes or more to arrive at their intended output devices, a light-emitting diode (LED) or liquid crystal display (LCD) digital signage solution takes only seconds to deliver an alert.
"I know when I press that button, I can hear it in my hallway immediately," says Virginia Tech Associate Vice President of University Relations Larry Hinker.
Virginia Tech has 470 Inova LED scrolling signs installed in its classrooms as well as in semi-public areas, such as building lobbies and student unions.
"We realized with all of the technologies we had that we weren't able to reach all of the faculty members or students in classrooms that were isolated," he adds. "That was a concern after the horrendous shooting we had."
Emergency Use Only? It Depends.
Because digital signage can be used for emergency alerts, routine announcements and marketing messages, each campus must determine what types of communications will work best for them.
With both Virginia Tech and Seattle Pacific University (SPU), which also has LED scrolling signs deployed in its classrooms, the devices are only used for emergency purposes. During non-emergency periods, the time and date are displayed.
"What we found is having a sign that works all the time and displays valuable information (time and date) was a better solution than some of the individual panels on walls or large TV monitors with emergency information scrolling on the monitor, similar to cable TV," says SPU Assistant Vice President for Technology Services Dave Tindall.
The Veterans Administration (VA) hospital system, however, which uses a digital signage solution from Hughes Network Systems, uses the system to disseminate marketing and general administrative information, as well as emergency notifications.
Zoned Communications Can Cause Confusion
Many of the digital signage options available today have the ability to cater messages to specific locations.
"You can do some way-finding to help students get from point A to point B in the most efficient way," says Pete Sisti, who is CEO of Inova Solutions. "That's different than blasting an emergency message, but for campus safety, it does allow for efficiency in moving people from one place to another, especially during evening classes."
Officials at both SPU and Virginia Tech, however, have decided against using that functionality for emergency notification, primarily because emergency situations can be so fluid. An intruder or gunman might change locations, for example. Keeping track of him or her and then catering the crisis communications accordingly has proven to be very complicated.
Avoid Long-Term Contracts
For those campuses considering the adoption of digital signage for mass notification purposes, there are some common missteps that should be avoided.
"Don't get locked into a long-term contract that doesn't meet your expectations," say Berkly Trumbo who is Siemens' national business manager for the integrated security solutions group. "Either buy your own hardware and design the system to your liking or negotiate short-term lease-type arrangements for a period of 24 months where at the end, you can upgrade, purchase or replace the system."