Creating a Digital Signage Network (17. Emergency Messaging)

                                                    Emergency Alert Message              


            Campus safety is the prime directive for our digital signage network.  We are responsible for a digital signage network that serves more than 45,000 people each day on our three main campuses.  The shear speed of notification of a problem on our campuses drives every decision we make as we continue to develop our network.  To be completely honest, we had no idea how fast we could alert our campuses in the event of an emergency situation until the first test of the full digital signage network system.  We were shocked!

West Virginia University instituted a threefold approach to emergency messaging by tasking the WVU Police Department with the capability to issue the emergency alert message to subscribers of a cellphone text message, an email message sent to subscribers and to our digital signage network of more than 70+ strategically deployed digital signs.  We found out immediately that it takes about 45 minutes for all the mass emails to be cued up and distributed to the subscribers.  We learned that it takes about an hour for thousands of cell phone text messages to be sent after each individual cell phone provider cues them up for distribution to text alert subscribers.  (These times are variable based upon cellphone carrier individual characteristics and network congestion.) Shockingly, we determined that our digital signage network had the emergency alert displayed in a lightning fast 9 – 20 seconds… as we like to say, “That’s flat-out gittin’ it!”

(September 2011… It should be noted the response times of our cell phone texts and email messaging in the event of an emergency have been greatly improved over the last year or so through the efforts of the local cell carriers and our campus email handling systems.  The current response times for those mediums are reasonably within a couple minutes.  Digital signage continues to respond within seconds.  This points to the fact that we use EVERY test strategically to assess our successes and to look for areas we can improve response times.) 

In any emergency situation, time is of the essence.  Instantly, our digital signage was seen as the frontline to public safety messaging on our three campuses by our university administration.  They saw the massive benefit and value this form of communication brings to the institution, especially in a time of trouble.  In the litigious world in which we live these days the first question that would be asked is, “Did you make every effort to alert the public that there was a problem on your campus in a timely way?”  Failure in emergency messaging is NOT an option!

Using a simple RSS Feed we are able to trigger our digital signage into emergency messaging mode completely unattended.  The decision to trigger the alert message is determined by university officials and the WVU Police Department and our network constantly looks for a very specific RSS Feed to cause the switch-over to emergency messaging mode.  We also have a Fail-Over System in place to take over instant control of the network from the other campus if our Master Control Room suffers a power or network failure.  This Fail-Over System constantly replicates changes made by users on each of the campus Information Station servers so that all information is current.  RSS technology is not brain surgery and is relatively easy to learn with a little effort.  Once the emergency is over a second RSS Feed is issued by the WVU Police Department to cancel the alert message and the system reverts back to standard operating procedures within seconds.

A committee at the university administrative level has met to form specific types of emergency messages that can be issued under certain conditions and a chain of command has been established for approving and emergency message to be issued.  Once an emergency message is issued, regardless of the time of day or night, our digital signage team confirms that the digital signage network has distributed the emergency alert to all digital signage.  The system immediately sends a special text message to our entire teams’ smartphones that the emergency message feature has been triggered at our server level.  Post emergency alert, we review our network response times and report them to our university administrators.  Any changes to our equipment or software must pass a rigorous test to make sure our system response time is not degraded.  Quarterly tests of the emergency alert system are conducted by the WVU Police Department and we participate in those tests to determine any variations in response.

At the beginning of each Fall and Spring semester, for 10 days, we add the following pages to our information loop in an effort to educate the new incoming students about how we use the WVU Information Stations digital signage displays in the event of a campus emergency or campus weather alert.  Quickly they realize that the digital signage network will alert them if such problems arise on our campuses.  It also provides them with a website address to sign-up for the cell phone text alerts and the email alerts.

Any alert message is succinct and to the point.  It advises the public of a specific problem, where the problem is on campus and what action they need to take to avoid the problem.  The alert message may also tell them to avoid a certain building, or evacuate a certain area, or shelter in place, etc.  It then directs them to the university website or other media outlets for more detailed information about the problem once they are out of harm’s way.  We keep the alert messages “short and sweet” for a reason.  In the event of an emergency we do not want people “camped out” reading our digital signage… we want them to be safe… we want to alert them, tell them where they can get more in depth information about the problem… and then get them “the heck outta Dodge”!

(We also associate a unique audible tone and a pre-recorded message with the on-screen alert message that would indicate to visually impaired pedestrians that there is an emergency alert; and they will find more information at the university website or other media outlets.)

Original Response Time Email Message  (35-45 minutes to cue 13,000 campus emails)

Original Response Time Text Message  (50-60 minutes to cue 8,000 text messages to all                   carriers)

Response Time Digital Signage  (9-20 seconds to display on digital signage)

Questions to discuss:

Who has Command Authority to issue Emergency Messages?

How is the Emergency Message triggered?

Who triggers the Emergency Message?

Who constructs the wording of the Emergency Message?

What justifies an ALERT Message to be transmitted?


Local Crime?  (How “local” is local?)

Weather?  (Bad weather on the way?  Campus shutdown ONLY?)

Will there be any ADA Compliance requirements?  (Audio tone to accompany ALERT message?)  (Left channel for regular audio / Right Channel for ALERT message tone?)

Will there be an audible tone that accompanies the Emergency Message?

Once an Emergency Message is issued, when is it taken down and by whom?

Who is designated to coordinate communications with other First Responders?  (Campus Police?)

Who is designated to coordinate communications with local media?  (News & Information Department?  Campus Police?  Twitter?)

RSS Feed

One back-up system on the shelf ready to go in the event of a failure.

Do we have an “On Call” IT person to verify messages have displayed?


About swgraham2

Mountain Mists is an opportunity to develop some thought processes individually as I journey through this wonderful world; as someone who values highly effective management techniques and the art of leading teams; and through my association with West Virginia University as a professional technologist and network manager specializing in digital signage.
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