Creating Efficient Emergency Communication on Campus

Dedicated Emergency phones improve response time

Emergency preparedness is a topic that should not be taken lightly. Whether the facility you manage is a school, manufacturing plant, church, or entertainment venue; having an up-to-date detailed action plan and effective equipment in place is the key to limiting damage and saving lives.

In a time when it seems like every person has internet access in their pocket, most would assume simply having a mobile phone will be enough to notify authorities when emergency situations and security threats rear their ugly heads. This thought process makes sense in a perfect world, but when taking into consideration the variance of mobile phone signal strength within different areas and unique building layouts, one can easily see why this is an unreliable communication strategy. Pinpointing exact locations of emergency calls placed by mobile phones is not foolproof and requires some guesswork. This quick fix mode of communication also conflicts with most school’s mobile phone policies, adding even more chaos to the learning environment.

Administrators' dependency on private mobile phones to solve numerous problems has become common for many reasons. Budget cuts, lack of preparedness and minimal training has made our world even more vulnerable to threats. This dilemma has created a need for out-of-the-box thinking to keep daily routines safe, while simultaneously holding (or ideally improving) the bottom line.

Mobile Phone Failures

Past school shooting incidents like Columbine prove that excessive student, faculty, and parental mobile phone use during a school emergency can cause mobile phone networks to overload and shut down. This is a critical issue when many school emergency plans require mobile phone communication as a backup to school phone systems and as a primary means of communication between on-site school administrators. Those administrators are often on the move to coordinate lockdown and evacuation efforts and must be able to communicate with emergency responders.

An example of the unreliability of mobile phones in an emergency can be found in the recent drowning case of two young women when their vehicle careened into a pond in Chaska, Minnesota. Bushra Abdi and Zeynab “Hafsa” Abdalla were simply on their way to pick up food after their work shift when tragedy struck. Somehow their vehicle left the roadway and was headed for a pond. Upon hitting the water, a 911 call was placed to dispatchers who could hear screams for “Help,” followed by “Help, we are drowning!” After a brief choppy conversation between the women and dispatcher the call went silent. Police were on the apparent scene within three minutes; unfortunately, the location of the mobile phone ping was later deemed to be inaccurate and the police were in the wrong place and unable to save Abdi and Abdalla’s lives.

Streamlining Communication

Using mobile phones in a vehicle emergency may be the only option; but in an actual brick and mortar facility, the missing component is the availability of reliable emergency communication. With education funding often being the first part of the budget to see the chopping block, school districts simply haven’t had the resources or the manpower to examine communications gear designed for specifically reporting lifethreatening emergencies. The security communications industry currently offers numerous products that are available and suited perfectly for school settings.

Emergency phones are accessible in most public settings; from parking ramps to walking paths, why are a large portion of schools and facilities being neglected? Odds are there are many reasons for these security shortfalls.

Simple questions can lead us to simple answers. Would installing a basic phone be just as good as having a dedicated emergency phone? The simple answer to this is no. Your ordinary corded phone has many shortfalls and is not ADA-compliant. The guidelines of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that any communications device installed in a building for use during an emergency must be accessible to all people. This requirement affords the right of accessibility to those with vision and hearing disabilities. ADA-compliant emergency phones are often easy “one button press” devices, accompanied by Braille lettering, and mounted on the wall at a level where they can be reached from a wheelchair.

Mass Notification

Emergency phones are a good start to making schools and facilities safer but can easily be even more effective when combined with a Mass Notification Announcer (MNA). Mass Notification Announcers allow administrators and emergency responders to provide critical up-to-the-second emergency instructions to students, faculty, and staff during chaotic events where evacuation may not always be the best strategy. At the basic level, every school building needs to be equipped with a fire reporting system with manual fire alarm boxes installed within five feet of each exit doorway, and on each floor. The NFPA 72 (National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code) currently does not mandate the installation of Emergency Communication Systems (ECS), however, regarding the use of an ECS, NFPA 72 states:

“An emergency communications system is intended to communicate information about emergencies including, but not limited to, fire, human-caused events (accidental and intentional), other dangerous situations, accidents, and natural disasters.”

The Viking Electronics DNA-510 meets the need for on-demand mass notification announcements and tones. This easy to use device offers up to two minutes of digitally recorded voice instructions and alert tones, all over your existing paging system. When activated, the DNA-510 will interrupt any current paging or background music and inject an emergency voice message and/or alert tone over your paging system.

The DNA-510 offers ten different alert tones that are programmable for emergency mass notification of: evacuation, lock down, severe weather, fire, bomb threat, hazardous material release, tornado, flash flood, terrorist alert, all-clear, and the list goes on.

Beyond the Basics

Fire alarms will not cover every emergency alone. Pairing current fire alarms with emergency phones and a reliable Mass Notification Announcer is a great start to cover all your bases. The placement of these devices is also a very important aspect of planning.

Having detailed action plans in place will determine how teachers and students should respond in lockdown situations. Often times these plans focus on certain locations within the building, but what about people stranded in hallways, cafeterias, gymnasiums, locker rooms, pool areas, auditoriums, lobbies, or student lounges? These areas are not equipped with telephones and are far more likely to experience poor cell phone signal strength due to dense building materials. Students and staff stranded in these areas are left without any connection to emergency communication. It is these areas where installation of emergency phones can be most beneficial. Simply having a visible emergency phone in place can be deterrence.

Viking emergency phones are constructed from high quality materials with numerous size and chassis options to fit any of these scenarios. Outdoor applications can even be upgraded to have Enhanced Weather Protection (EWP) to protect against unavoidable destructive forces such as snow, rain, dust, and insects. This great option can also be a perfect idea for indoor applications where the air quality is poor or the environment is damp.

These solutions can be cost effective over both short and long terms. Emergency phone prices vary depending on which brand and style you want and where you purchase the phones from. In most cases, schools can buy a fully featured surface-mount Viking emergency phone for around the price of a typical multi-line phone commonly used in schools. On top of the hardware cost is also the added expense of installation. However, since Viking emergency phones don’t require an electrician to run AC power, equipping vulnerable areas in a building with Viking emergency phones can be very cost effective.

Push button IP emergency phones, such as the Viking E-1600-IP, can easily be installed at an affordable cost and only require a single Ethernet connection for both power (PoE) and data. This product line is proven to be vandal resistant and operate with little to no maintenance for years and years. With the built-in functionality of being programmed to any phone number, these life savers can connect victims to the help they need in seconds while simultaneously providing exact location data based on the mac address and/or an optional recorded location announcement. Activation and discreetness of alerts can be accomplished with add-on panic buttons such as Viking’s PB-1.

As schools currently stand, security weaknesses are running rampant and relying on privately owned mobile phones is not the answer. Mobile phones are proven to be the least reliable communications method during a life-threatening emergency. The mobile phone crutch only adds to the confusion and often blurs the facts, creating even more problems for emergency responders. The technology and emergency communications gear is out there and it’s up to administrators to go out and find the ideal equipment to save lives in their unique scenario.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Campus Security Today.


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