UMass deploys new mass notification system
BOSTON—The University of Massachusetts is deploying a new mass notification system this week at its campuses in Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell, and at its president's office.
The previous mass notification system at those four locations was four years old and "underperforming," Jeffrey Hescock, the university system's manager of emergency planning and business continuity, told Security Director News. The UMass campuses in Amherst and Worcester have adequate existing systems, he said. "We understood that the systems have changed over the past few years since we originally had a contract, so we wanted to use the best-practice system out there," Hescock said.
After an extensive search that included an RFP and 14 vendor proposals, a selection committee made up of representatives from the public safety, emergency preparedness and IT departments, chose Rave Alert from Rave Mobile Safety, according to Hescock.
The aspects the University of Massachusetts wanted to address with its new system were speed and reliability. "When we send out an alert we want to make sure that it's getting to the appropriate faculty, staff, students, visitors, in a timely fashion and we can verify that that information does go to each of those particular folks," Hescock said.
Speed was also a reason the University of Miami deployed the Rave Alert system last year, according to Scott Burnotes, the university's director of emergency management. So far, Burnotes said the system has been meeting expectations. The Rave Alert systeme alerted on August 16 when a suspicious package was discovered at a bus stop right off campus. The university sent out 20,004 text messages in 27 seconds using Rave Alert, according to Burnotes. The package turned out to be harmless, but "we take these things very seriously," he said. "From a technology systems standpoint, I've been very, very happy with the speed," Burnotes said. "It performs with what we consider the top-tier notification companies."
Hescock and the other members of the UMass selection committee also liked Rave Alerts' ability to incorporate several methods of communication into one system, including text messages, voice messages, desktop alerts, RSS feeds, digital signage on campus, as well as social media channels like Twitter and Facebook. "A one-stop shop is very important so you're not wasting time if there is an emergency and you need to notify the population," Hescock said.
UMass joins a list of roughly 500 colleges and universities using Rave Alert as its mass notification system, according to Raju Rishi, Rave Mobile Safety's co-founder and chief strategy officer. According to Rishi, Rave is the only mass notification company focused 100 percent on the higher education market. He wouldn't disclose sales figures, but claimed the company is experiencing "massive growth" and has almost zero attrition. "We're taking share from our competitors," he told SDN.
Mass notification systems have been around for years. The Clery Act of 1990 requires colleges and universities to notify students in a timely manner of any threats on campus. But it wasn't until the Virginia Tech incident in 2007 when a student shot and killed 32 people on campus that colleges and universities really expended the time and resources to ensure a robust system was in place, Hescock said. (In fact, Virginia Tech was fined $55,000 following the incident for not notifying students and faculty in a timely manner. The school appealed the fines this past April.) "That hit home to a lot of colleges and universities," Hescock said. In fact, UMass didn't incorporate text messages into their mass notification system until 2007, Hescock said.
In 2004, the year Rave Mobile Safety was launched, most schools were still notifying students and faculty via landline phones despite the fact that 90 percent of students had cell phones, Rishi said. But today, communicating via cell phones and text messages has become an integral part of any mass notification system, he said. "Cell phones are really the lifeline of that student," he said. "It used to be when you walked out of the house, if you didn’t have your car keys and your wallet you got very nervous. Now if people don’t have their cell phones they get just as paranoid, if not more paranoid that they've lost it. It's their tool to connect to the outside world."
Another indicator of how colleges and universities are beginning to change how they view emergency preparedness is the fact that both Hescock and Burnotes occupy relatively new positions at their respective organizations. Hescock became UMass' first system-wide manager of emergency planning and business continuity in November 2010, while Burnotes became the University of Miami's first system-wide director of emergency management in October 2010. "There were some incidents that happened the past couple years that proved the point that [the university] needed someone focused 24/7 on mass notification," Burnotes said.