Situational Awareness: The Key to Smarter Campus Risk Management

My daughter Elizabeth starts college in a few weeks, so safety and security are on my mind more than usual and in a more personal way.

Orientation was just a couple of weeks ago, and while impressed by a great many things about her choice of higher learning environments, including the police and volunteer security resources, I wasn’t surprised by how dated and fragmented the technology infrastructure is. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve covered the basics with lighting and fencing, “Security 101 stuff,” and I’m glad they have emergency pull stations, but those are almost as antiquated as payphones. But I’m a tech guy who thinks about this stuff almost 24-7, so it’s inevitable that I’d go into discovery and assessment mode. I didn’t embarrass Elizabeth (that much) when I toured what will be her new home for the next four years, but I’m going to share my thoughts here.

School security has largely been influenced if not completely driven by law enforcement. Believe me when I say I appreciate their efforts – there’s no replacement for the human beat – but the police mindset tends to be prosecutorial in nature. However, future prosecution doesn’t have anything to do with right-now safety, plus you can’t prosecute a fire or a tornado. Schools, including any college or university, need to be able to address a crisis as it’s unfolding, and ideally before an incident becomes a large-scale emergency in which lives and/or property are at risk.

Real-time situational awareness is the key to campus risk management so administrators, staff and students know what’s happening, where it’s happening, and what to do about it based on carefully crafted crisis plans. What’s dangerous on and around your campus? What can you do to respond to a crisis and reduce its impacts? Who needs to be notified and how? You see, situational awareness is first a mindset and then a technology framework for creating time – time to prevent and/or respond to any number of threats – from an overflowing toilet to an active shooter.

With today’s smarter networks and devices- plus the right software to tie all of them together – it’s easier and more cost-effective than ever to create a safety and security bubble over a single facility or a wide-area campus. So in addition to developing emergency preparedness and response plans, college/university campuses can use technology to automate them, integrating all life safety, security and environmental alarm and communication systems for complete situational awareness.

What Is Situational Awareness?

Originally a military term referring to a pilot’s operational status and knowledge of immediate threats, today the term has broad applications in any environment. At its essence, situational awareness refers to real-time information about what’s happening in and around a given environment. This knowledge is made possible by integrating disparate alarm and communication systems for centralized monitoring, alerting and reporting.

Any threat or deviation from normal operations requires that both on- and off-site responders have situational awareness as soon as a triggering event occurs. With a universal alerting engine, triggering events can be harnessed to drive awareness transactions – or alerts – with specific details about an unfolding situation and how to address it, or avoid it all together. Therefore, situational awareness is critical for emergency communications and response management for any campus.

Situational awareness is not overly complicated; however, it is certainly challenging because various alarm systems are at work on any given campus at any given time. Then you have to factor in a combination of voice and data networks not to mention a plethora of communication devices.

The world’s communication infrastructure has moved from rudimentary to super charged – from radios, handsets and pagers to smartphones and tablets. There’s been a proliferation of screens for sharing information. However, all of these systems operate independent of one another, in silos, and unmonitored systems generally only provide local alerting in the form of buzzers, lamps or annunciation panels. A fire alarm goes off when smoke is detected, but it doesn’t tell you where the fire is or where the nearest exits are located so the safest evacuation route can be determined.

But thanks to computer-telephony integration (CTI) and robust middleware, every sensor, alarm and communication end point can be unified to ensure that key individuals, select groups or entire populations are able to read, hear and see what’s happening and do the right things in response. Instead of a generic nomenclature, detailed alerts – including the nature of the alert plus location data – are delivered, improving response in terms of both the right action and better timing.

Campus administrators then can generate daily and/or historical reports to analyze response times and emergency protocols to make improvements. Such interoperability also means that legacy technology investments don’t have to be ripped out and replaced. In fact, their utility is usually expanded through integration with an enterprise awareness engine, providing redundancy and escalation paths to ensure that critical information reaches on- and off-site responders or other constituencies based on predefined protocols, or modes and actions (e.g., if this, then that).

Universal Alerting and Other Notifications

As I mentioned before, the world is full of screens, so it’s important to use all of them to deliver information during an emergency – especially the personal screens most of us carry or keep near at all times. Smartphones become even smarter when backed by an enterprise situational awareness solution that makes use of any device on any network by any stakeholder – from professors to students and anyone in between. Today alerts can be sent to any smartphone, but turning these devices into mobile command and control centers for seamless situational awareness on the go requires the addition of preprogrammed dashboards.

A universal alerting application with these mobile dashboards enables users to respond to unfolding situations more quickly, initiate alerts and associated response plans more effectively, and escalate/notify others as necessary – all from one user interface. Users also have the ability to receive live video feeds from integrated security cameras, plus view recorded videos, floor plans and photos through a capability called video paging. When Wi-Fi coverage weakens, the device switches automatically to cellular for uninterrupted alerting both on and off campus.

The power of this persistent connection and the alerting app, which leverages telecom, data, LTE and video on a universal, integrated platform, enables wide-area mobile duress for summoning immediate help. While some companies and start-ups provide duress products, they’re just that – one-dimensional, whereas mobile duress is just one application of enterprise situational awareness.

Following are just a few examples of how situational awareness technology can be used for integrated alarm management and automated notifications:

  • Fixed duress in executive offices and cash-handling areas
  • Mobile duress buttons for administrators, faculty, staff and students with special needs
  • Glass-break detectors
  • Audio sensors (e.g., gunshots)
  • Door/window contact alarms and integration with access control/intrusion and motion detection
  • Integration with indoor and outdoor security cameras
  • Fire panel integration
  • Cigarette busters and water bugs in restrooms
  • Temperature sensors in server rooms and cafeteria food stores
  • Sensors on boilers, power generators, HVAC systems and defibrillator cabinets
  • Smoke/gas detection in science labs
  • Motion detectors at eye-wash stations in science labs
  • Inclement weather warnings
  • Evacuation notices
  • Lockdown notifications

Of course alerts should be delivered in real time to multiple groups via multiple channels – from phone calls and texts to emails and PA announcements. This sort of mass notification is event-triggered and provides redundancy, which is critical to life safety. However, mass notification also can be campaign-triggered, meaning tailored to a specific group.

For example, if a student’s meal plan is about to expire, a phone call, text and/or email can be set up to notify said student so he or she can make arrangements to prevent the account from expiring. Situational awareness and its modes and actions are situation agnostic, so the solution can be used to drive awareness transactions in regard to any situation deemed important to the college/university – from matters of life safety to matters of revenue.

Continuing Advancements

I used to sit at a terminal and do data entry on a mainframe computer, but then the PC came along. I used to drive to a research institution and pay to use the Internet, but now I have World Wide Web access at both my office and home. In short, innovation is never finished. Much like email and voice mail have automated the messaging function, software also has automated situational awareness with advancements continuing to be made:

. Video is poised to be a game-changer for both awareness and analytics, such as the possibility of using facial recognition to determine whether someone is supposed to be in a certain area or not, and whether they’re recognized as a staff member, student, legitimate visitor or intruder.

. There’s a sensor or alarm to monitor just about anything and that includes social networks. Beyond homeland security, law enforcement and security experts recommend social media monitoring to head off potential violence. Because we’ve seen a rise in school attacks, centralized monitoring and alerting related to social media should be considered as part of emergency planning and response management.

. Self-service is another trend I see taking shape on campus because people want what they want, and they want it fast and accurate. Meals, activities, surveys, check-in, maintenance and lighting are just a few of the functions that can be integrated and streamlined to improve communication, workflow and service – from the dorm room to the stadium suite.

Situational awareness is a big concept, but it boils down to preventing bad things from happening, specifically the loss of life, property, business and convenience. Whatever the trigger – a mobile duress press, a leaking pipe or a malfunctioning HVAC – information about the situation must be conveyed in real time to the people most likely to be affected, as well as those responsible for investigation, containment and remediation.

Real-time awareness through centralized monitoring, alerting and reporting takes a campus from reactionary and siloed to proactive and holistic in terms of risk management because of one awareness platform and one awareness experience for any user. As a private college/university, you have the opportunity to do more with such technology and move more quickly than your public counterparts, although the goal of any education institution should be a safer, more productive learning environment.