Emergency notification systems get the call

Shootings raise interest in large-scale communications

ALERT SYSTEM: Alion's Response Information Folder System can send alerts and updates, along with information on both building interiors and urban terrain.

An increase in weather-related disasters, along with tragic events such as the recent shooting rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, has spurred interest in emergency alerting and domain awareness technology in the academic, public and private sectors, according to industry experts.

The shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg April 16, in which a student killed 32 people and injured many more before taking his own life, underscored the need for mass-communication alerting systems, such as those already in use at some military bases, campuses and other locations, experts say.

Base alerts

Government agencies at the federal and state levels are deploying emergency notification systems that can send alerts to a wide range of communications devices, including desktop computers, cell phones and personal digital assistants. They also send alerts to large communities of people, from first responders to employees and citizens.

The Air Force Air Education and Training Command, for instance, uses an applica-
tion from AtHoc that sends audiovisual pop-up alerts to the thousands of desktop computers of AETC personnel at bases where it has been deployed.

The AtHoc system is a major component of AETC's Installation Warning System that has been introduced at 13 bases nationwide. IWS consists of Giant Voice, outdoor speakers on poles scattered throughout an installation; a telephone alerting system; and the AtHoc network alerting system.

The network alerting system is used for all kinds of communications across Vance Air Force Base, Okla. The base has had at least one close call with a tornado.
The most prominent is notifying personnel about severe weather, said Master Sgt. Robert English, superintendent of command and control at the base.

Officials at Vance plan to upgrade the network alerting system in May, enabling AETC family members to subscribe to the service so they can receive alerts on their home computers, English said. 'It kind of broadens our capability.'

The upgrade will 'not only allow people at home to get the pop-ups that we send out at the base, it also has the capability of calling people's phones and pagers ' pretty much reaching someone by any type of electronic device they have,' English said.

The ability to push text messages to multiple communication devices is an essential requirement for emergency notification systems, experts say. For instance, Virginia Tech's emergency communications systems included e-mail but not cell phone text messaging.

After the shooting rampage, David Jordan, chief information security officer of Arlington County, Va., offered to let Virginia Tech link into the county's emergency notification system until campus officials could implement a more comprehensive system. But the provider of Arlington's system, Roam Secure, had already made the offer, he said.

Roam Secure was recently awarded a contract to provide Virginia with a Statewide Alerting Network (SWAN) for first responders, government officials and Virginia residents.

SWAN will use RSIX, the Roam Secure Information Exchange, to connect to existing Roam Secure Alert Network systems in Northern Virginia and the National Capital Region.

RSIX collects and aggregates data from national and local news, weather, traffic and health alerting sources, and other Roam Secure alert systems nationwide.
It then pushes information to any text-enabled device, phone or fax. RSIX subscribers can opt to receive specific data feeds, said Ned Ingraham, senior vice president of homeland security at Roam Secure.

An organization's internal information can be fed into the Roam alerting system and sent at the push of a button to notify users about a rapidly unfolding situation, such as a tornado or a shooting, he said.

Another mass notification network for government agencies is Amerilert, powered by the Omnilert Network, which enables administrators to send out messages to large groups of people within minutes. A Web-based system, Amerilert, can send messages to any standard communication device.

No simple cure

However, no one solution offers a silver bullet. Emergency situations 'always require a blend of different tools,' said Don Rondeau, vice president of homeland security at Alion Science and Technology.

The company's Response Information Folder System can give emergency managers and first responders a 3-D view of urban terrain and building interiors during an incident.

RIFS combines 3-D computer modeling, digital photography, an integrated relational database and emergency alerting with a Web browser interface.

Officials at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., recently completed a RIFS prototype with Alion that will give emergency managers a more accurate and real-time view of facilities at the 138-year-old university, said Teresa Walker, assistant provost for technology and director of the Academic Technology Mall at Hampton.

Emergency managers, workers, students and residents all need rapid access to information to effectively respond to disasters and crises, experts said.

The next generation of emergency notification and alerting systems can provide this information and save lives, they added.

'Communication is the strongest weapon against chaos,' Jordan said.

About the Authors

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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