U. of Washington Improves Emergency Communications With New Emergency Phones

SEATTLE — In an effort to improve its emergency communications network and mass communication capabilities, the University of Washington (UW) installed 24 Talk-A-Phone emergency phone towers across its main campus.

As one of the oldest state-supported universities on the West Coast, UW has more than 500 buildings and 50,000 students. Thus, school officials sought a cost effective and affordable tool to help the university’s police department connect and address all areas of the campus community.

In the end, the university replaced older emergency phones with the Talk-A-Phone towers, which feature WEBS technology, the company’s wide-area emergency broadcast system, which is capable of delivering clear, audible messages to targeted or entire areas on campus. Equipped with an emergency phone, the tower features blue LED strobe lights are on top of every unit and flash continuously when a unit is activated. Each tower also has four speakers, enabling it to broadcast a mass notification message about 1,000 feet in all directions, according to the company.

Since their installation, the UW Police Department are impressed with the towers, noting the emergency phones, which automatically dials to the campus police dispatch center, provide a direct line to authorities. Once a call comes in, the dispatch center immediately knows the exact location of the tower. Additionally, security cameras located on and around the tower provide a live video feed to officers. This helps the police respond to incidents faster, according to Sue Carr, technical services manager for the UWPD.

“In the dispatch center, we are listening to radios and incoming calls all the time,” she explained. “When a unit is activated, we get the call directly into our dispatch center and we can immediately respond. We call them blue phone activations.”

The department, as well as emergency personnel, also use the Talk-A-Phone product to broadcast messages from the dispatch center through a single tower — or a selected group of towers if the alert is limited to only one part of the campus. Using a special key, campus police officers also have the ability to use a microphone in the back of each tower. This allows officers to broadcast messages directly from the back of each unit.

For UWPD Interim Chief Ray Wittmier, having multiple approaches to mass communication is best for the university.

“Everybody recognizes the need for a mass notification system,” he said. “As we looked at that, we realized that the old, antiquated E-mail method really doesn’t cover everything we need. When we’re trying to send out a message to 65,000 people via one platform, it takes well over an hour. We need multiple ways to deliver that message.”

An added benefit for the university is that the towers act as a deterrent to crime because of the bright blue LED lights that bring attention to the surrounding area.

The university regularly tests the system quarterly throughout the year to make sure it operates effectively in the event of an emergency. This proved to be beneficial for UW, which recently had to put the towers to the test.

“Not too long ago, we had a criminal incident that occurred off campus that spilled onto our campus,” UW Technology Business Continuity Manager Andy Ward said. “We used the towers to broadcast a message and the broadcast was successful.”

Overall, university officials enjoy the system.

“We don’t necessarily look at the system as a tool that provides information,” Carr said. “We look at it as a tool that gets information out.”

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