Florida State Aims for ‘Easy Button’ Solution to Mass Notification

Institutions cannot afford to have an emergency notification system that takes minutes to verify an emergency, draft a message, seek approval and/or send the alert. To address this challenge, Florida State University, in conjunction with Siemens, has developed a centralized activation portal for its FSU ALERT emergency notification system.
Published: November 21, 2014

NOTE: CS is running this article again in response to the Nov. 20 shooting at FSU where three students were shot and the gunman was killed. The school’s emergency notification system described in this article played at important role in keeping the campus safe and providing important information to the public. This article originally ran in print and online in 2012.

Florida State University’s (FSU) “FSU ALERT” emergency notification system boasts 32 different methods of emergency communication delivery. These are broken down into 10 primary, nine secondary and 13 tertiary modalities. The modalities include but are not limited to outdoor warning sirens, indoor warning sirens, SMS text messaging, E-mails, strobe lights, digital signage, desktop alerts and social media (Facebook, Twitter, et al). Until now, however, managing all of these systems was a challenge.

Policy Gives Police, Emergency Management Authority

Prior to the integration of all of our mass notification solutions, FSU went to great lengths to streamline the FSU ALERT activation process. The policy governing its usage places maximum authority into the hands of those individuals who manage emergencies: the FSU police department and emergency management, which is located within the department of environmental health and safety.

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Related Article: Severe Weather Warning Puts FSU ALERT EZ to the Test

The policy established pre-approved scenarios by which the first responders can issue alerts without requiring the delay of an administrative approval process. If the situation provides the luxury of “going up the chain,” the policy calls for that movement up the approval hierarchy. However, in the worst case scenarios where time is critical, that luxury does not exist; nor is it needed by the policy. 

Despite FSU’s best practices in developing pre-approved scenarios, pre-scripted messages and a streamlined approval process, there were unacceptable delays in activating the system. The problem arose from the program’s own success. By employing so many different technologies to deliver emergency messages, there were simply more buttons to push to make things happen. 

When a second means the difference between life and death, any delay whatsoever is unacceptable. Since FSU had done all it could from a policy, planning, training, exercise and operational aspect to maximize efficiency for FSU ALERT, it was time to look at technology enhancements. 

There are companies out there that will sell you the all-in-one solution that might even have a really easy activation process. That’s great if you’re not like FSU: an institution that has already invested in excess of $1 million in hardware and technology to support its alert system. As you can imagine, FSU was not interested in disposing of that investment and starting from scratch.  Additionally, there is a lot to be said about “putting all your eggs in one basket.”

Activation Process Needed to Be Simple

FSU needed a way to consolidate as many of its emergency notification delivery methods as possible into a single activation portal. A solution was needed that would integrate the existing technologies and infrastructure that FSU had established over the previous years. There was little interest in abandoning previous investments and starting from scratch, as was proposed by many vendors. 

In addition to simply pulling everything together into one activation process, FSU wanted it to be extremely simple for those worst case scenarios. FSU wanted something akin to a panic button.  The university envisioned a button, or series of buttons, on the wall of FSU police dispatch that any individual could simply press and the emergency alert was sent. Clearly, the FSU police communications center is a secured facility, so it would be a good location for the activation button. The university internally dubbed this concept the “FSU ALERT EZ” project, in homage to the “Easy Button” advertising by Staples office supply stores. FSU wanted something that would make one say “that was easy!”   

Related Article: Timely Warning vs. Emergency Notification: What’s the Big Difference?

In early 2010, FSU issued an invitation to negotiate (ITN) to the emergency notification and information technology market sectors to develop a potential solution. The scope of work emphasized that a successful solution needed to integrate FSU’s existing infrastructure, provide a physical “easy button,” and be scalable to incorporate any future changes or additions in technology. There was some flexibility for value-added suggestions, but the university was clear that it was not interested in abandoning and replacing any previous investments unless there was a clear benefit to doing so. Price was not really a major concern. The larger issue was finding someone who had the means to complete the task.

Only 3 Companies Provided Viable Solutions

Numerous companies replied to FSU’s ITN. Clearly many did not comprehend the scope of the project. Most seemed interested in selling their product while eliminating and replacing previous investments in infrastructure. Only three of the dozens of respondents grasped the concept of true integration and provided viable solutions.

One company clearly had the expertise to complete the project. They had completed a similar project at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), widely known to be the first, and at that time, the only institution in the nation to integrate its existing disparate emergency notification systems into a single activation portal. The second respondent was essentially a reseller of the first respondent’s technology. The third was Siemens Industrial, which had a clear idea of how to meet FSU’s needs, but admittedly had not done so before. The decision to use Siemens was based primarily on their depth of corporate resources and the fact that the university already had a solid relationship with Siemens in terms of building controls, facilities management and fire safety systems.

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Strategy & Planning Series