Buying an Emergency Alert System: Emergency Managers Reflect

School and college officials talk about their emergency alert system and future emergency broadcast plans for things like severe weather.

Considering purchasing an emergency alert system? It’s not a bad idea.

School and university officials looking at their emergency alert system can see they industry has come a long way since the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting that put the world on notice about the importance of emergency broadcasts.

For nearly a decade, campuses across the nation have been implementing emergency notification systems that enable first responders and campus administrators to communicate with their communities during emergencies. In fact, many institutions are on their second or third generation of alert systems.

Before 2007, many campuses relied solely on email for emergency notification… that is if they had any emergency plans at all. If they did have more than one emergency alert system, the solutions usually couldn’t “talk” to each other. Now, however, more campuses are integrating their broadcast systems so they can more efficiently send out potentially life-saving information.

Not only has the technology evolved, so have school and college communities’ expectations of how quickly they will receive emergency alerts. It’s now quite common for students or staff members to complain when they aren’t notified immediately that an emergency has occurred on or near campus.

Keeping this in mind, this next installment of Campus Safety’s series on technology’s return on investment (ROI) features input from various school and university end users on what they’ve spent recently on their emergency broadcast systems, how they’ve kept costs under control and the benefits that have resulted from using the notification technology.

Emergency Alert System Equipment, Maintenance and Support Costs Vary

Because school and college campuses vary widely in size, community type, location and requirements, it’s nearly impossible to develop any rule on how much an emergency alert system will cost. One large public university’s recent expenditure on equipment and installation included $90,000 on additional outdoor alert sirens in areas with poor audibility; $25,000 on more indoor siren interfaces; $40,000 on additional beacons in school buildings or rooms without indoor sirens; and $15,000 on additional digital display interfaces. The yearly recurring costs for all of that college’s emergency alert solutions total about $85,000.

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A mid-sized K-12 school district that has been shopping for an upgraded landline/cell phone calling, texting and in-building announcement system found that most of the solutions they were considering cost between $2 and $7 per student, not including software and installation, which could cost up to $25,000.

Meanwhile, a private college recently installed 10 blue light phones, which cost $7,500 each; and indoor phones, which cost a total of $7,500 annually for the software. It cost $3,000-$5,000 to install each emergency alert system and about $15,000 to develop new policies. The annual maintenance price tag is $10,000, and the cost for policy development was a one-time outlay of $15,000. Another university system spends about $150,000 per year to maintain all of its alert systems.

Texting Alert Solutions Can Be Inexpensive for Some School or College Campuses

These examples clearly show that there is a wide variance of costs associated with emergency alerts, but according to Dave Baeder who is manager of emergency notification systems for Siemens, texting can be fairly economical.

“If you want to go with something as simple as text messaging, it could cost you pennies per transaction,” he says.

“If you want to go with something as simple as text messaging, it could cost you pennies per transaction,”Dave Baeder

Text messaging can also be supplanted by emergency alert apps and emergency alerts on phones to get students information quickly.

Baeder warns, however, that there are some significant challenges associated with emergency apps and text messaging for educational institutions.

“The student population is very fluid, which has been somewhat the Achilles heel of text messaging,” he says. “The data is never accurate. You really have to rely on premise-based solutions like voice evac, intercoms, giant voice, digital signage, blue light phones and telephones to drive messages out.”

Indeed, most experts believe that a layered approach to emergency broadcasting that incorporates several different types of alert systems (usually including text notification) is the best approach to emergency communication plan.

Other costs that add up for emergency alerts include UL, NFPA and local fire code compliance as well as database management.

Standardization, Studies Help Keep Costs Under Control

On a positive note, school and college campuses are becoming much savvier and methodical in how they purchase and deploy emergency broadcast systems.

“Going back about 12 or 13 years ago, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) installed 11 outdoor sirens,” explains VCU Chief of Police John Venuti. “We very easily could have gone out and bought 11 new sirens, but we didn’t do that. We did a sound propagation study that revealed we didn’t need 11 sirens. When we were looking at replacement of the siren system, we projected a pretty big number based on what it would cost to replace everything we had. Investing in the sound propagation study, we knew we could completely replace the entire system and probably provide better audible coverage in the VCU footprint for a lot less money.”

Standardization across a campus or an entire organization can also result in cost savings. For example, a hospital system with many remote locations might choose to have its corporate office purchase the emergency alert system for all of its branches, which results in economies of scale that apply not only to the cost of the equipment, but also to its installation and maintenance.

Some Colleges and Schools Opt to Use Broadcast Systems for Non-Emergencies

One way to realize a greater return on your mass notification technology investment (ROI) is to use it for non-emergency announcements. Florida State University (FSU) has embraced this strategy for one of its systems.

“Our vendor for email, text messaging and voice calls created sub-sites with their own SMS short codes and email source addresses,” says FSU Emergency Manager Dave Bujak.  “To the end user, there is no way to tell that emergency and non-emergency messaging comes from the same server. Numerous FSU departments -admissions, alumni, boosters, etc. – have sub-sites established, making the service an enterprise-level value.”

emergency alert system

Grand Rapids Public School System plans on using their alert system to send out emergency messages involving road closings, weather-related issues, reminders about parent meetings and even announcements regarding upcoming athletic events.

According to Larry Johnson, who is Grand Rapids Public School System’s chief of staff and executive director for public safety and school security, an upgraded emergency alert system would have helped address issues involving a major renovation that impacted some of his district’s neighbors.

“We were not very good at communicating the ch
anges that were going to happen to a building,” he says. “Mass notification would have given us an opportunity to create a forum or message board to allow us to communicate those messages.”

Others Use Emergency Broadcasts Only for Emergencies

Other school or college campuses limit use of their emergency notification system to criminal incidents, weather incidents and other emergencies.

“Our system is branded for emergency/advisory-related use only,” says Claremont University Consortium Emergency Services Manager Dave Burns. “Otherwise, campus email is used for routine notifications. We want the campus community to know that when they see a warning, it has real, tangible meaning. We don’t want the community to ignore our messages or become complacent due to mass notification fatigue.”

Some schools and colleges use it for non-emergencies, but only on rare occasions. For example, although VCU does not normally use its alert system for non-emergency messages, it did use it in 2015 during an international bike race that brought in more than 600,000 spectators over nine days because there were a lot of street closures.

Whatever approach an organization decides to take, the trick is to find the right balance between maximizing ROI while maintaining alert system credibility with students, teachers, staff, clinicians and administrators. Baeder advises campuses to be cautious.

“Schools tend to over-leverage the [emergency] technology for routine notifications, and that creates noise that gets ignored, more so with cellular communications than premise communications,” he says.

Emergency Alert System Use Varies from Campus to Campus

How much the emergency alert system is used for actual emergencies runs the gamut. Florida State University, which experiences a lot of severe weather, issues 10-15 emergency alerts per year for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash flooding. It also issued “dangerous situation” mass notifications when a gunman opened fire in the Strozier Library in November of 2014 and when a stabbing occurred at Ragans Hall in March of 2012.

“Schools tend to over-leverage the [emergency] technology for routine notifications, and that creates noise that gets ignored.”Dave Baeder

At Claremont, emergency broadcasts can be issued daily or weekly, depending on crime trends.

“Sometimes you use them frequently, and then go for months without use,” says Burns. “It’s better to have the resources to communicate than not.”

For the first six months of 2016, VCU issued six emergency text alerts for cases of shots fired, robberies and a car fire. It should be noted, however, that during that same period, only once did they issue an all-system alert that involved the school’s sirens, alerts, text messages and Alertus beacons.

Even if a school or college campus rarely needs to use its emergency notification systems, according to Baeder, officials should test them at least quarterly, if not monthly.

“This keeps the staff sharp and operating procedures fresh,” he adds.

Brand, Safety Awareness Benefit from Deployment of Alert Systems

There are many benefits to deploying a multi-layered mass notification system. Solutions that are used appropriately can increase the community’s knowledge about safety and security issues happening on campus, which enables students, faculty, clinicians, visitors and staff to take responsibility for their own protection.

Additionally, emergency broadcast systems can reduce the number of calls from parents, friends and other family members when an emergency occurs because the campus is proactively communicating with them. They can also address the rumors being disseminated by the media and social networks that might not be accurate.

Some campuses even survey their communities to determine the impact of their emergency broadcast systems. In VCU’s most recent perception of school safety survey, for example, 75 percent of respondents said the school’s sirens increased their feeling of safety. That percentage increased to 84 percent for text alerts.

Campus security professionals can also learn more from FEMA!

A robust mass notification program might also positively affect the organization’s brand. Even at hospitals where emergency notification doesn’t get as much exposure, clinicians and other employees appreciate emergency alerts.

“I think it sends a message to our staff that we care about their well-being and that we’re using the best possible solution to notify them about a situation,” says David Corbin, director of facilities, engineering, public safety and parking at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

Many educational and healthcare organizations work hard throughout the year to publicize their emergency alert system and its benefits, which bolsters the institution’s brand, albeit indirectly.

“We do not have a way to quantify it, but our FSU Alert and Keep FSU Safe brands are ubiquitous, not only on campus but throughout our community,” says Bujak. “Even guests on campus tours are introduced to the brands and systems, especially on days when weather may interrupt the tour. It is a hallmark of the university, and we promote it everywhere, every chance we get. While it is not the make-or-break factor, it certainly plays into the comfort factor a student and their family has when they consider the institution.”

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About the Author

Robin Hattersley Gray

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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