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Emergency notification displays to bolster Virginia Tech alert systems

LED displays in classrooms will supplement voice, text systems to phones and other devices

August 20, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - When Virginia Tech's 28,000 students return to classes for the fall on Monday, they will benefit from another emergency mass-notification system added over the summer in response to the April 2007 campus killings of 32 people by a lone gunman.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University hopes to have finished installing 220 text-message displays by Monday in its general-purpose classrooms and large lecture halls. The displays will be used to convey emergency messages about campus crimes or bad weather to students who are not supposed to be using cell phones in class and might not be able to hear outdoor emergency sirens, a school spokesman said today.

The OnAlert displays from Inova Solutions Inc. use light emitting diodes (LEDs) and can scroll text alerts left to right or top to bottom on a display about 3 feet wide and 6 inches high. Inova, which is based in Charlottesville, Va., near the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, was picked as the display vendor after the first anniversary of the shootings last April, Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said.

When state officials conducted a review of campus safety and security about a year ago, in-classroom displays were recommended as a means of supplementing an alert system already implemented that provides text alerts, e-mail alerts and postings on campus Web sites, Owczarski said. In addition, an audible siren system installed several years ago for severe weather warnings can be used for other types of emergencies.

The OnAlert displays cost about $220,000, but that does not include the cost of programming the signs and installing them, he said. They connect to an existing Ethernet network and provide messages that are already generated over the e-mail, text and Web system, with programming to allow announcements to fit logically on the message boards and still be readable from a distance.

In safety reviews conducted after the tragedy, officials noted that classrooms at Virginia Tech did not have a public-address system, which school officials said would be too expensive to install across 100 buildings on hundreds of acres. "We felt anything we could do to improve safety for students and faculty, we should do," Owczarski said.

The university also recently updated its software for a voice-based emergency telephone alert system, which had required sending messages to 8,000 phones in eight different batches, but now will require only five batches, saving time in distribution, Owczarski said. Also, the campus added another dozen of the "blue light" phones stationed around the campus for making emergency calls to campus police, bringing the total to more than 75.



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