Timely Notification

March 1, 2011
Education administrators face challenges in responding to the need for timely notification in the event of an emergency.

In December 2010, the Department of Education (DOE) released the Final Program Review Determination (FPRD) as the last say on its earlier ruling that Virginia Tech University violated the Clery Act's requirement for issuing a timely warning during the events of April 16, 2007.

The FPRD findings bring clarity to how DOE views the mandate of "timely notification" as articulated in the Clery Act. This decision places more scrutiny on school and university officials and their management of emergency events and dangerous situations. School leaders face challenges an need the tools provided by industry to respond to the need for timely notification.

The Department of Education does not set specific time requirements for emergency notification. Early drafts of Higher Education Opportunity Act 2008 (HEOA 2008) cited 30 minutes as a warning window, but in the end the more vague term "within a reasonable and timely manner" was used. Also there is no definition of what constitutes an emergency event or dangerous situation requiring notification of the campus population. By not setting a finite measure of time or defining what emergency events are, the law has left it to be determined after the fact as to whether or not timely notification was properly executed.

According to DOE, "The determination of whether a warning is timely is determined by the nature of the crime, the continuing danger to the campus community and the possible risk of compromising law enforcement efforts among other circumstances surrounding the event in question." By definition, DOE has made it clear that the determination will be decided on a case-by-case basis. This vagueness in the law poses a conundrum for education. What is good enough?

DOE's December ruling changes the nature of campus police responsibility and response. In order to meet this obligation, universities will be forced into more elaborate scenario planning so that there is less contemplation when an emergency does occur. Quicker decisions means less time to notification. When the decision is made to notify the population, the notification system in place needs to deliver as simply and quickly as possible.

Suzanne Grimes, mother of one of the Virginia Tech victims, a former teacher and a vocal advocate for school safety says there should be more teeth in the law.

"The DOE really needs to define what 'immediate' means. Does it mean there is an imminent danger — a double homicide, a fire, a chemical spill? While you can't expect them to account for every situation, they can create classifications that require immediate notification. They didn't do that in the Clery Act, but I would hope that in the future it will be defined more specifically to give these schools some guidance," says Grimes. "What it means for universities is that they have to step up to the plate. They have to make sure their emergency plans are up to date, they have to practice and prepare better."

Responding to DOE's initial June 2010 report, Virginia Tech argued that because Clery Act legislation does not define "timely notification," the university's efforts on April 16, 2007, were sufficient. In December, DOE disagreed saying that the basic facts of the situation — one person killed, one injured, no suspect in custody and no weapon found at the scene — defined the sense of urgency. It was reasonable, said DOE, to assume there was an armed and dangerous suspect at large who posed a danger to the campus community. A timely warning should have been issued even if the law has not set a specific timetable. In this case, the DOE determined that two plus hours was too long.

Active shooting events have happened on K-12 and higher education campuses in the past. However, the frequency has increased from 1 per decade to 30 since 2000. While those numbers may reflect greater accuracy in news reporting, it is also clear that the active shooter has become an American cultural dynamic.

The Clery Act embodies more than just shootings. There are 11 distinct categories that campus police must report on to be in compliance. These include robbery, assault, rape and hate crimes among others. Going forward, the mandate to notify the campus population is now framed in terms of one individual posing a threat to other individuals.

University and Industry Response

Universities have learned to layer technologies in order to address the notification challenge: The current tool box includes in-building alerting systems, fire alarms, outdoor sirens, emergency phone stations, mobile cell/text messaging, e-mail blasts, website announcements, social networks and more.

So what does this ruling mean to manufacturers of emergency notification systems going forward? The good news is that since 2007, great strides have been made in mass notification. Smarter, more accurate, more reliable systems that integrate layers, target locations, provide two-way communications and use multiple, redundant communications networks have arrived on the scene. These precision notification systems often feature a software platform that puts more information at the fingertips of emergency management, police and other decisionmakers.

Precision Notification

In any emergency event the clock starts ticking when the event begins. Actual message delivery speed — the elapsed time from send to receive — is only one piece of the puzzle of timely response.

In December's ruling, DOE took a hard look at what information was known, by whom and when as well as who had access to launch notification. In DOE's judgment, this is where Virginia Tech misspent critical time and where one of the violations of the Clery Act occurred.

One critical component of a precision notification system is using a central command software platform that integrates systems and shares information.

An effective command center provides the following features:

1. Sharing resources — Various layers are being employed to get the right message to the right place at the right time. But as those layers stack up, university administrators and dispatchers may find themselves buried. Therefore, institutions must balance operational efficiency with redundancy in roles and responsibilities. Any central command must enable dispatchers to launch multiple systems from a single user interface. Also, the central command software must support multiple users from remote locations so that the ability to launch notification does not rest with a single person in a single place.

"Even though the university (Virginia Tech) had articulated in their emergency plan that the chief of police was able to send out a notification, he had no way to do it, had no access to do it. All he could do was call the university president. And all of that took more time," says Grimes.

2. Two-way communications — Many emergency notification systems are one way — pushing warnings out to end users. However, some newer systems today provide Request for Help or panic buttons on fixed location receivers which tie directly back to the central command interface. This may be the source of initial information about an event and must do so independently of cellular networks. During emergencies these networks are subject to a spike in demand and become clogged with outbound messages and person to person communications.

3. Information availability — Command center software that can store information about a building, such as the location of AEDs, floor plans, exit routes or hazardous materials greatly assists response efforts. Many universities are deploying IP camera systems. A central command center software platform that integrates real time IP video is an invaluable tool in the notification process. Better yet is coordination of cameras and panic/help buttons. Seeing is believing.

4. Event Data Archiving — Because judgment about whether or not university officials complied with the law will be made after the fact, it is important to archive all system activities. Who, what, when and where. Can you go back and listen to that call for help? Surveillance camera footage can provide indisputable evidence in court. Can you document how long it took to respond? The burden of proof clearly is on the institution.

A well-developed precision notification command center provides enough information to help reduce notification time, activate and manage multiple systems, records system activity and assists in efforts to respond more effectively.

Targeted warnings

A second critical area where precision notification reduces warning time is by targeting warnings to specific locations. This location-based approach can save significant time over mass notification by pushing warnings into the rooms, floors or buildings where emergency events are happening. This type of targeting is more efficient and effective than calling everyone but not knowing where anyone is located.

Following the incidents at Virginia Tech, many universities quickly adopted some form of person-based alerting systems to contact individuals via cell phones, beepers, laptops and smart phones. Person-based messages typically are one-directional and take the form of e-mails, text messages and phone calls that play programmed recordings. The alerting devices mostly are consumer-grade devices that receive data over cellular networks, WiFi and Internet. Using this type of system requires developing and maintaining a database of phone numbers, email and IP addresses of individual recipients and is often limited in its effectiveness by the number of people to opt-in to receive these messages.

Location-based systems rely on activating fixed location devices that use sirens, lights, voice and text to get attention from anyone nearby. Fire alarms, PA systems, sirens, IP phones and a wide range of proprietary devices fit into this category. These systems are hard-wired for power, battery backed up and use redundant communications networks such as Ethernet, wireless mesh and even FM-RBDS. Typically the alerting devices are commercial/industrial grade, with redundancies for power, and communications built in.

Be prepared

While DOE has not yet drawn the lines regarding which events require what type of warnings, there is nothing to preclude a university from taking those same steps on their own. At UCLA, campus emergency manager David Burns has implemented a plan in which the entire notification process is preapproved for 15 specific scenarios. Another 30 are in place in which some element of discretion is needed. Not only can warning messages be preapproved, but they can be prepared in multiple languages. A list of first-response personnel, key administrators and other important people can be created for each scenario. Desktop exercises and live drills can be done on a regular basis whether or not the law is clear. All of these measures serve to prove that timely notification is taken seriously.

Timothy Means is the Director of Product Management and a co-founder of Metis Secure Solutions, Oakmont, Pa.

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