Tag Archives: emergency notification systems.

LiveSafe: The Transformation of Emergency Communication

As the blogs posted on the 23rd and 30th July discussed, the Virginia Tech incident gave salience to the issue of ‘emergency alerts’ during crises. This led to a transformation in ‘emergency communication’ in Virginia Tech University’s policies and higher education institutions throughout the nation. It also created a gap in the market for the emergency communication smartphone application LiveSafe (www.LiveSafe.ly). This is available to download for free anywhere in the U.S., therefore is technically for everyone to use; however, its main usage is around higher education institutions and a couple of high schools in the East Coast. The image below shows the home screen of the app:

WVU Home Sceen

Its features mainly centre on reporting potential threats or being able to deal with a crisis should it occur. The features of this app allow: people to report crimes or other incidents such as car accidents and features a two way communicative feature with the police; tracking of users’ locations; a mass emergency notification resource; safety mapping of incidents.

LiveSafe Homescreen

The screenshot below is the most recent version of how to submit tips in a non-emergency situation.

WVU Tip Select

This is then translated into the ‘map’ feature, which can be seen by all subscribers. Incidents such as shooting incidents, fires and car accidents are initially reported through the ‘dashboard’ feature and information like pictures, videos and audio shows up on the computers of affiliated law enforcement organisations allowing them to investigate incidents. Once the police have verified an incident is correct, it shows up on its ‘map’ feature and this data is amalgamated for each higher education institution. The federal legislation ‘Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act’(1991) requires higher education institutions to log and publicise information about crimes committed on or near campuses in an annual crime report. The LiveSafe application, therefore, allows higher education institutions to be more transparent by drawing attention to any crime or safety problems on campuses. The rationale of it is to make safety a more natural and everyday entity. Given the findings of theorists who have studied fear of crime that precautionary action, such as being more aware and having tools to reduce victimisation, can negate anxiety about crime, it certainly seems that ‘naturalising’ safety to make it a commonplace occurrence could be useful in managing fear.

LiveSafe Map Function

Furthermore, it has a ‘broadcast tab’ feature that allows users to send messages (text, email or voice) to all other subscribers, with pre-set templates to save time. The traditional format of ‘broadcasting’ emergency alerts combines with smartphone technology in LiveSafe to allow individuals to take control of both sending and receiving crisis communication messages. This application also allows users to ‘check in’ during a crisis, providing them with an alternative to the traditional media format of making a telephone call.

LiveSafe Broadcast Feature

It also has a feature ‘call police (911)’ or ‘message police,’ which potentially be used in emergency situations where one wants to be discrete. During the Virginia Tech shooting many students had to ‘play dead’ to survive, so an inconspicuous way to communicate with emergency services would have been very useful under those circumstances. The app, however, is only to be used to contact emergency services under circumstances where there are no other options. Possibly it could also be used by users who are unable to call the police, because of language barriers (LiveSafe translates tips submitted in non-English languages) and disabilities, such as being mute.

WVU Call Police

Allowing for communication during a crisis and an alternative form of emergency calling could potentially mean that LiveSafe allows for insecurities about the risk of crime and safety concerns to be managed through taking precautions. This app may be downloaded from https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/livesafe/id653666211?ls=1&mt=8 for iphones and https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.livesafe.activities&hl=en for Android.

[This blog was put together with results from a qualitative interview with a LiveSafe spokesperson. A fuller version of this piece is published in my doctoral thesis and may appear in publications in future.]

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Emergency Communication after Virginia Tech: Legitimising Laws and Policies

The Virginia Tech shooting provoked a number of ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ communication measures being implemented in colleges and universities, and also led to changes in federal law. In the last blog, I documented the emergency communication problems highlighted by the Virginia Tech shooting: the delay in emailing the emergency alert to staff and students; the vague nature of the first alert sent out, coupled with it failing to really inject any urgency into the message; the inconsistency between the institutional emergency management plan and emergency communication policies about the parties with the relevant authority to issue emergency alerts. In the next two blogs, I intend to take this further by looking at changes to federal and state laws, Virginia Tech University itself and how this created a market for the emergence of a mobile phone safety application.

Analysing the need to ‘take action’ after the Virginia Tech shooting brings to mind the argument of Power about secondary risk management, where institutional responses are guided by “cultural demands for control, accountability and responsibility attribution.” The lawsuit which was filed against Virginia Tech University following the delay in communication highlighted the need for accountability and responsibility. Notably, the delay in communication on April 16th 2007 was said to violate the ‘Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act’ — commonly known as the ‘Clery Act’ — (1991) applying to all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs. The purpose of the law was for transparency around crimes occurring on colleges and universities, by keeping a public crime log, publishing an annual crime report and disclosing security policies. More specially relating to the Virginia Tech incident, the ‘Clery Act’ (1991) requires that higher education institutions provide ‘timely warnings’ in emergency situations posing a threat to students and staff. As it transpired, the federal-level ‘Clery Act’ (1991) was amended in 2008 to include changes to emergency communication: notification is now required to be immediate, unless to do so would impede efforts to resolve the situation somehow; notification methods are to be publicised to staff and students, plus tested and annually reported; the authority of campus law enforcement to issue emergency messages is to be clearly defined in institutional policies. In terms of measurable effects, research conducted by Campus Safety Magazine found that, a year after Virginia Tech, 73% of survey respondents had bought or intended to purchase mass emergency notification systems. A survey by Rasmussen and Johnson found that 75% of respondents intended to incorporate mobile phone technology in their systems after the Virginia Tech shooting, compared to the 5% who had it in place prior to the incident.

At the state-level, the Virginia bill ‘First warning and emergency notification system’ (2008) mandated that emergency notification for public institutions of higher education be ‘comprehensive prompt, and reliable,’ with various communication mechanisms and the appointment of authorised, trained individuals to activate systems. In the case of Virginia Tech University institutional policies, the recommendations and subsequent changes made appear to be ‘corrective action,’ where the university sought to repair its image by reporting plans to improve its emergency communication system. In terms of improving mobile phone signals in buildings on campus, service providers sent over technicians to improve tower capacity. Sirens were also installed at two additional locations throughout the campus. Most notably, at the time of the shooting, VTU was in the process of updating the notification system, but the event — and perhaps the accompanying controversy and lawsuits about the delay in emergency communication — meant the process was expedited and so ‘VT Phone Alerts’ was fully installed and configured by July 2007. This system allows for users to either opt-in or out of subscribing to the system. Those opting in choose three contact methods ranked in order of preference: text messages, instant messages, emails (including non-university addresses), phone calls to office/residence, phone call to mobile phones, and phone calls to elsewhere (e.g. parents’ numbers). At the time of August 2007, almost eleven thousand students, faculty and staff had subscribed to the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system. Further changes have been implemented since then. In 2008, digital signs linking with the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system were added to classrooms; the year of 2009 saw the introduction of the ‘VT Desktops Alerts’ system sending a message to laptops/computers connected to the internet, both on and off campus; the system was expanded to six regions in Virginia in 2010. The most recent notification system consists of contacting mobile phones, telephones and instant messaging supplements, other systems of emails, desktop alerts sirens/loudspeakers, hotline, website, electronic message boards. Under these circumstances, policies have a ‘legitimising’ function outlining the course of action needed to fix the problem, where the implementation of these gives authority to the decision-making body.

[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents and the institutional policies of Virginia Tech University, as well as other studies and academic scholars. It was first published in my doctoral thesis and will likely appear in future publications.]