College CIOs work to boost emergency communications

Last month’s mass shootings at Virginia Tech have become a call to action for many university IT managers, who are being asked to find new methods, including wireless approaches, of communicating quickly with students and workers during emergencies.

Several university CIOs who attended Computerworld’sMobile & Wireless World conference in Orlando last week said they were under scrutiny as school officials looked to bolster emergency communication capabilities following the Virginia Tech shootings, which resulted in the deaths of 32 victims and the shooter.

“That unfortunate disaster has had a big effect on all colleges,” said Jay Dominick, CIO at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I’ve been in constant meetings since it happened to talk about ways we can better communicate on campus in such situations.”

Dominick said that although Virginia Tech officials were “pilloried” for waiting more than two hours to send out an e-mail notice about the initial shooting incident in a dormitory, it’s unlikely things would have been done any differently at most other colleges.

“I think they did a great job getting the word out,” he said. “Most campuses wouldn’t even have the processes in place to know what things to do to respond to such an emergency within that amount of time.”

Next month, Dominick expects to decide whether to expand a pilot program in which cell phones equipped with applications useful for classes and campus life were sold to Wake Forest students. As part of the pilot program, which started last September, Wake Forest and Cingular Wireless LLC (now part of AT&T Inc.) sold Cingular 8125 phones to 100 students for US$299 each. The phones can work in Wi-Fi mode or on the Cingular cellular network, and the vendor gave the students a 20 per cent discount on its voice and data plans.

Dominick said the pilot worked fairly well. but that the devices were expensive and complicated to use. And although the 8125s could be used to send quick notifications of emergencies through voice or text messages, rolling them out to all of Wake Forest’s 4,300 undergraduates by the start of the next school year might not be possible. Dominick said he might consider a simpler, less costly device instead.

St. John’s University in New York also is considering adopting new communications and security technologies in the aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech, formally known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

“We had done several things prior to Virginia Tech, but there are many things to be learned from that tragedy,” said St. John’s CIO Joseph Tufano. He added that sending voice and text-messaging alerts to the cell phones of students is “a good idea, but not everybody has one, and we do turn them off in classes.”

Within the past year, St. John’s has installed 10 security cameras connected via a wireless network in remote areas on its four campuses, increasing the total number of cameras it has to 258. Tufano said that IBM consultants helped upgrade a videotape security system to one that is digital, but still uses the older cameras to save costs. The new system allows for quicker searches of stored images and will be upgraded to enable digital searches of licence plates read by cameras at campus entry points, Tufano said.

To help spread notifications about emergencies, he added, more large-screen monitors may be installed in common areas and classroom buildings.

Facial-recognition software might also be adopted, according to Tufano. In addition, St. John’s may explore using software that could detect unusual movements captured by surveillance cameras, such as a single person entering an auditorium as a crowd is leaving.

But technology isn’t the only answer, Tufano said, noting that good emergency-response procedures and knowledgeable security personnel are vital as well. He said two former senior officials from the New York City Police Department were in charge of campus security at St. John’s, “and they know their stuff.”

Related content:

Virginia shooting signals need for pervasive alert system

New dimensions expand emergency communications

U.S. gov’t, wireless industry asked to cooperate

The price of freedom: Interview with Julian Fantino

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