Filling the Gap in Emergency Response

By Del Williams

When disasters occur, from tornado warnings to domestic or international terrorism, PDAs, cell phones and email are of little help to those without them or those ignoring them. To protect school campuses and the wider community, wireless PA systems compatible with existing two-way radio systems are filling the emergency response gap at some of the nation's school campuses and municipalities.

"Between Hurricane Katrina and the Virginia Tech shootings, some of my security colleagues and I became concerned about how effectively we'd communicate with the community during emergencies," says Tom Carey, Director of Security and Campus Safety at Bates College, a four-year independent liberal arts and sciences college in Lewiston, Maine.

"If a security incident occurred on campus, students, staff, or visitors could walk straight into trouble if we couldn't get an emergency message to them in time," adds Carey, who's on the Domestic Preparedness committee of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA). "While PDAs and cell phones are great, they leave a gap in emergency response for those not carrying or paying attention to them."

Looking for Better Choices
Carey sought a comprehensive and reliable emergency response system for Bates College, but was unsatisfied with the traditional choices. Simply mounting civil defense sirens was not enough.

"People hear sirens all the time, whether for police, fire, or ambulance and may have trouble distinguishing yet another siren," says Carey. "Sirens signal emergency, but don't tell people what to do or not do. That's when people flood security phone lines looking for clarification, which only makes the problem worse."

An emergency response phone, text, and email system was implemented at Bates College as part of a solution, but was not sufficient by itself. "Contact by phone, cell phone, PDA, or PC is certainly helpful, but there's a lag time while someone composes a message and enters it in the system," says Carey. "From the onset of an incident to the last person reached can take 20 to 40 minutes or more if someone isn't checking their messages."

Carey also noted that people busy with any number of activities may not pay attention to their electronic devices. What they needed was a way to reach everyone on campus - immediately.

Eliminating an Achilles Heel
Carey's research led Bates College to a long-range wireless PA speaker system. The LoudMouth® wireless PA system by Ritron, Inc. allows a portable two-way radio, base station or mobile radio to broadcast voice messages over PA speakers from up to two miles away. This is done via a LoudMouth radio receiver connected to one or more of the included indoor/outdoor horn speakers.

"We've eliminated the Achilles heel in our emergency response with an ability to wirelessly broadcast live, long-range messages to PA systems strategically placed across campus," says Carey. "By piggybacking on our existing two-way radio operation, our Ritron wireless PA system enhances our emergency response and security without the cost or complexity of wired infrastructure."

Though the system can work with repeaters for greater coverage, Carey finds it has sufficient range for Bates College's 109-acre campus without one.

A Homeland Security Test
A recent Homeland Security grant to the city of Lewiston put the wireless PA system to the test in a large-scale training exercise involving Bates College, along with city police, fire fighters, and first responders. In the emergency test scenario, the college was "ground zero" in a hypothetical ammonia-release at the campus hockey rink.

"When we field tested the wireless PA system in the training exercise, it worked exactly as we hoped it would," says Carey. "Its unique alert noise, distinct from police, fire, and ambulance sirens, got everyone's attention. Then our communications officer delivered a live, loud and clear message to the campus areas where the most people gather."

What was the benefit of a "live" message? "The real-time message got an immediate response from those who needed to hear it, and allowed us to issue 'live' updates as needed," says Carey. "It helped with safety, coordination, and reduced the number of callers who otherwise would've flooded the phone lines asking questions."

"As a simple, inexpensive add-on to this most basic unit of security, the Ritron wireless PA system makes sense when an immediate emergency response is needed from a large number of people," concludes Carey.

Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, California.