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« Parsimony and Security | Cybersecurity for smart buildings and the smart grid »
Sunday
Jun282009

Virginia Tech, Emergency Communications, and Academic Sheep

When the Virginia Tech shootings hit the news two years ago, I was sitting in on a meeting of the committee developing standards for communication in emergencies. Interoperability is critical to innovation, and emergency scenarios make the innovation scenarios crystal clear. Unfortunately, emergencies also cause the timid to stampede, and there is no more timid class in America than the academic leadership at our colleges and universities. I began thinking of this entry during the anniversary recognitions on the UNC campus.

Every school in the country rushed to do something, anything in the aftermath. Campus police chiefs were instructed to make a decision now, without waiting to consider the future. Campus decision makers rushed to spend money as fast as they could. On campuses, outcomes are measured on care demonstrated rather than on effective results. Care is demonstrated by new initiatives and by money spent; no campus leader wished to be left behind in number of initiatives. Millions were wasted creating systems that do not work well, and provide no foundation for future growth.

At Carolina, the two initiatives were public address systems and automated phone trees. Neither has proved particularly useful, or effective. Standards-based systems based upon EDXL and its peers were explicitly rejected.

The public address system lends an odd cold war edge to the campus. I grew up in San Diego, a town target rich with Navy base home to multiple fleets. Emergency response and emergency communications were part of the town culture. Warning sirens were mounted on tall white towers throughout the neighborhood I grew up in. They were tested every month, at noon on Friday if I recall correctly. Today, towers like this dot the campus.

This system might have been useful on the campus of the fifties. In today’s world, in which every student walks in a personal shell created by a booming IPod, it is unclear how well they work or even can work. Campus initiatives may not be effective, but they are thorough. The outlying fringe area of office space have the same sirens as on campus. The towers are ostentatious, installed without consideration of cost or effectiveness, and demonstrate caring.

The other initiative is what I call an automated phone tree. The campus signed up with some third party provider to automate calls to campus denizens. The campus asked students, faculty, and staff to enter their numbers into the database. It should come as no surprise that many never learned of this option, and that many more declined to be listed. As time goes on, the list can only be maintained by inculcating fear in each entering freshman class, and in all new employees.

A deeper problem is that this solution does not scale. Thousands of numbers must be dialed. Different cell phones have their own unique ways to go to voicemail. If the phone is busy, should the system try again?. In test emergencies, people routinely never receive the messages or receive them several hours later.

The correct target for today’s emergency messages is the cell phone and, to a lesser extent, the pager. EDXL alerts are all tagged with a geographic polygon of the affected area. EDXL alerts routinely include a narrative message, usually in a CAP Alert. Every cell provider knows the location of its cell towers. Every phone is talking to a particular tower at a particular time. There is no technical reason each of those phones could not receive a simple text message at the same time using existing infrastructure.

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