Ensuring Emergency Messages Get Delivered at Carnegie Mellon U.

A newly installed mass notification solution addresses the coverage issues and other challenges associated with the school’s previous emergency alert systems.

College campuses often experience challenges notifying everyone on campus when a crisis hits, and until recently, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pa., was no different. Director of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) Madelyn Miller was concerned that her institution would not be able to give appropriate instructions to the campus population about evacuating or sheltering in place during an emergency.

“I was concerned about our ability to drill down to the student level,” says Miller. “For example, I wanted to be able to tell a teacher in a classroom not to let students out if some emergency situation outside warrants a shelter-in-place directive. In some cases we don’t have much time to notify. We also have areas where cell phone reception isn’t good, in Mellon Institute, for example. I needed to fill some holes where existing technologies did not provide solutions.”

One potential crisis scenario that concerned Miller was the proximity of rail lines to campus. What if a train car carrying hazardous materials derailed nearby? Less urgent events, such as water disruptions, were also challenging.

Mock drills had identified the difficulty in alerting and providing information to students and staff for short-notice emergencies. At best, the process was time consuming and piecemeal.

Existing Systems Couldn’t Target Specific Locations
Although the university employed a range of technologies to alert the campus population, many of these solutions had limitations. None could deliver warnings to specific buildings or rooms in a time-effective manner. According to Miller, when a water main break occurred several months earlier, security resorted to posting handwritten notices on doors in affected locations to communicate updates and information.

In exploring various communications solutions, CMU identified one building, Mellon Institute, as the single most difficult environment for communications.

Old Infrastructure Created Cell Phone Dead Zones
Mellon Institute’s location in the heart of the Oakland neighborhood connects it to the expansive network of scientific activity in Pittsburgh’s biomedical, technological and industrial research community. On a daily basis, approximately 500 researchers at the institute use a wide range of potentially dangerous chemicals in more than 170 laboratories. They also conduct research that cannot easily be replicated or interrupted.

Not only does the scope of research present a safety concern, but the construction of the building poses a second critical issue in terms of emergency warnings. Covering a city block, the building is densely constructed of stone and concrete. Sixty two monolithic limestone columns line the four sides of the building. Concrete between floors ranges from 18- to 30-inches thick. This kind of old-world construction is a hostile environment with extensive dead zones for cell phone reception on four underground floors, creating problems for cell phone-based calling and text messaging systems.

New Solution Doesn’t Depend on Cell Coverage, WiFi
Meeting the complex communications challenges faced by CMU required a platform independent from mobile phone and WiFi networks, which have limited ability to penetrate buildings. Additionally, they slow down considerably during times of crisis.

Miller decided to install the Metis Secure system to address key concerns such as message speed, targeting locations, providing instructions, penetrating reception dead zones, and independence from phone, Internet and power failure.

Using a layered combination of wireless mesh networks and FM-RBDS broadcast, the Metis Secure system, with 119 notification devices mounted to walls on all 10 floors of Mellon Institute, can send targeted warnings to specific locations in less than 10 seconds. The FM-RBDS broadcast provides an all-at-once broadcast, while the mesh network allows the system to penetrate reception dead zones by passing warning messages from device to device within the building.

The new system delivers data to all of the Metis notification devices in typically less than one second; enables targeted messages sent to rooms, floors or other locations; and supports custom messages. Additionally, it uses voice, text, lights and sirens, ensuring ADA compliance and message effectiveness.

Other features include a map-based interface incorporating floor plans identifying high risk areas and battery back-up in each unit. The system can be monitored on-site or off-site to identify maintenance needs and system performance.

Campus Officers Respond to Requests for Help
Each notification device has a Request Help feature. The HELP button allows a user to leave a recorded voice message for campus police. The dispatcher can instantly see the location of the request, and can listen and quickly respond to the brief recording. In this manner, information about a building fire, a medical emergency, or other events can be fed directly to campus police by faculty, staff, students and visitors faster than a phone call. This feature is particularly important because it enables security to notify affected people of events who may require evacuation.

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