Getting the Message Across In a Crisis

A digital signage alert test message from West Virginia University

When a potential natural or manmade emergency occurs at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM), the campus’ 13,000-plus students and 1,900 staff are immediately alerted using the 304-acre facility’s 42 digital signs and Alertus emergency mass notification system.

“We’ve deployed the system twice in 2014,” said CSUSM emergency manager Robert Williams. “Once in May, we had to evacuate the campus due to pending wildfire and again in August when the University Police received a report about a possible man on campus with a rifle.”

Fortunately, the “rifle” turned out to be a long black umbrella that the man was carrying under his arm, not a gun. But until this fact was verified, “we had to lockdown the campus until the person could be located,” Williams said. During the hour-long lockdown, “we sent out four messages — first lockdown, second update with suspect description, third update/remain locked down, fourth All Clear.”

Once the All Clear message was sent out, CSUSM got back to normal. But the staff and students were appreciative of how quickly and expertly the emergency alert system had warned them of potential danger and how to react to it.

“We received lots of positive feedback from the campus,” said Williams. Of the many positive messages he received, there were several praising the effectiveness of the system.

A PREPLANNED RESPONSE

CSUSM’s ability to broadcast wide-ranging alerts across its digital signage is the result of serious pre–planning and investment. The university has accepted the fact that its campus’ occupants are vulnerable, especially in this age of “active shooters.” This is why Williams has revamped an antiquated emergency alert system with a new, modern and flexible system that is able to meet the changing needs of the growing campus.

MORE INFO
Adder: www.adder.com

Alertus Technologies: www.alertus.com

Christie: www.christiedigital.com

e2Campus: www.e2campus.com

Elo: www.elotouch.com

Four Winds Interactive: www.fourwindsinteractive.com

LG: www.lg.com

Samsung: www.samsung.com

SmartAVI: www.smartavi.com

Sony: www.sony.com

The set-up: In addition to its 42 LG, Samsung and Sony digital signs (HDTV monitors) — soon to be expanded to 47 with the addition of five wayfinding/touch-screen signs to help guide people around CSUSM — the university has a complete emergency playout and messaging system that is managed by its Instructional & Information Technology Services department.

“All the player computers are Mac Minis, setup and managed by IITS,” Williams said. “The computers boot up in Windows Operating System and use Four Winds Interactive as their digital signage software for management and players.”

CSUSM’s emergency alert system is controlled by Alertus Technologies’ digital signage override software.

“[This software] is unique in that it transforms wall-mounted Alert Beacons, LCD screens, LED marquees and digital media displays into intelligent emergency alerting appliances,” said Jamie Underwood, director of marketing communications for Beltsville, Md.-based Alertus Technologies.

The system uses emergency messages that have been pre-written and pre-loaded into the system’s server, and uses the company’s Activation Console software to send the message at the push of a panic button, any computer or mobile device.

“The Alertus cable TV override solution similarly allows organizations to deploy emergency notifications throughout public areas and residential facilities,” Underwood said. “When an emergency alert is activated, the system overrides all screens and channels with a full-screen notification.”

GROWING AND SENSIBLE TREND

CSUSM’s decision to link its digital signage to a pre-programmed, multi-media emergency notification system marks a mature trend among public institutions to face possible manmade and natural threats head-on. Such applications are increasingly being installed at colleges and universities, K–12 schools, corporations, medical centers, military bases and government organizations, with digital signage and cable TV displays doubling as emergency messaging platforms.

This trend makes sense.

“Institutions often find that they already have LCD screens, LED marquees or digital media displays strategically placed throughout their buildings or campus, which makes digital signage override software a simple, cost-effective solution,” said Underwood. “Using digital signage to display full-screen alert messages not only expands the reach of an emergency notification but also provides a visual means through which to reach individuals who may be deaf or hard of hearing.”

Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., is another college that has deployed Alertus as part of a system to notify staff and students of sudden threats.

“Alertus is used in conjunction with our SMS and cell phone system (Black Board Connect),” said Frank J. Zebedis, Winthrop University’s assistant vice president for student life and chief of Campus Police. “Our Alertus System is tied into our digital signage and when Alertus is activated, the current sign boards and digital messages automatically switch to the Alertus feed and broadcast out the feed we are sending through the Alertus system.”

The Alertus feed is also sent directly to all of Winthrop University’s computers.

“When the system is activated, the system overrides the computers and distributes the same message going over the Alertus system and sign boards,” Zebedis said.

To date, the university has had no actual cause to use its emergency notification system, “but we do test our system two times a year to ensure it is working correctly,” he said.

Spencer Graham, West Virginia University’s director of operations

West Virginia University has committed to emergency notification via digital signage in a big way. Specifically, the school has more than 110 Elo and Samsung digital signs deployed, spanning three WVU campuses in Morgantown, W.V.

“We will soon deploy on a regional campus 168 miles away in Charleston, said Spencer Graham, WVU’s director of operations. “As an original goal, all standard digital signage deployed carries an emergency messaging feature lurking in the background.”

The same messaging is available on WVU’s video walls, wayfinding touch-screen monitors, Walls of Honor and Donor Recognition Walls.

“We also distribute our content on the WVU Campus Cable television network on HD Channel 88-1 into almost 8,000 student dorm rooms,” Graham said.

To ensure that the emergency information provided to students is of maximum value — e.g., the nature of the emergency and how to respond to it — WVU has pre-produced about 25 different site-specific loops of content information.

“Our digital signage network content management system software is Four Winds Interactive and it integrates/shakes hands with the emergency messaging features of the e2Campus software purchased by the WVU Police Department,” said Graham. “In the event of an emergency situation on our campuses, the WVU Police issue an alert using e2Campus software. That software triggers an alert text message and alert email to subscribers; it also sends an XML feed to our network servers that switches us into a bold emergency message (with audio tone) on all standard digital signage within nine seconds.”

The WVU system has carried several actual alerts over the years and is tested quarterly.

“Approximately every 18 months we do a Tabletop Exercise that involves all pertinent parties on campus — approximately 18 people — involved with any emergency alert possibility,” Graham said. “This group is comprised of representatives of our various departments such as WVU InfoStation network employees, web services, news & information, senior administrators, WVU police, local city and county first responders.”

The Adderlink DV104 from Adder can be used to extend an HDMI signal to a remote display.

Other companies make products that are popular for digital signage and alert networks. On the display side, companies such as Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Samsung, LG, Christie Digital, Viewsonic and Vizio all have professional displays for this application. For example, the Christie FHD461-X HD LCD panel is a 46-inch commercial-grade display with a slim bezel that lets the monitor work either solo or in tiled applications.

Several companies make infrastructure products for digital signage and display, including HDMI extenders, display controllers, distribution amplifiers and switchers. These companies include Rose Electronics, Extron, Adder, Altinex, AJA Video, AViPas, ThinkLogical and SmartAVI.

If your system will have HDMI displays at remote locations, the SmartAVI HFX-TX/RX is one example of a transmit/receive system that can send HDMI video (including at 4k resolution) up to 1,000 feet over fiber optic cable. Another example is the Altinex Muse IP+ system, which not only supplies HDMI at distances up to 150 feet, it can also provide 120-Volt AC power for the remote display.

NO ROOM FOR ERROR

For an emergency notification/digital messaging system to work optimally, the right hardware and software has to be purchased and configured before any actual emergency occurs. Once trouble strikes, there is no room for error.

“We do not have the luxury of picking or choosing the exact time of our next crisis; so we must be prepared at a moment’s notice to perform without flaw,” said Spencer Graham. This is also why regular system tests are a must. “There are many variables that can change within any type of IT network on a daily basis and quarterly testing allows us to assure network continuity over time and to identify any potential/possible points of failure,” he said.

As for what to capabilities to purchase? Beyond ensuring that the emergency notification system is compatible with the digital signage network, “the digital signage alert should override the existing display with a full-screen alert message that scrolls for easy viewing from a distance,” said Jamie Underwood. “Organizations should select digital signage override software that is designed to interface with external devices that they may already have installed – including LCD screens, LED marquees, and digital media displays.”

One thing is certain: In today’s increasingly dangerous world, effective emergency messaging via digital signage is a must. Fortunately, America’s public institutions are accepting this ugly reality, and working actively to address it.

ADDITIONAL EQUIPMENT OPTIONS

In addition to the products mentioned on our emergency messaging/digital signage article, there are many more that GV readers need to be know about. Here are some worthwhile products that have come across our desks.

Adder Corporation’s AdderLink DV104T is a 2x4 HD matrix that can transmit two sources to four displays. It features a user-friendly interface with Proof of Display (P.O.D.) technology. “For emergency alert applications, the P.O.D. feature will be critical to guarantee that the content, in this case and emergency notification has been delivered,” said Adder Corporation vice president Tim Conway. “Alternatively, if the alert is not delivered the sender would also know it had not been sent.”

Brightsign makes digital signage players that can be integrated into an Emergency Alert System by using Tightrope Media Systems’ Carousel CMS. Deployed by the University of Minnesota, Ohio State University and University of South Carolina, “each BrightSign player in a Carousel system can be subscribed to multiple emergency alert zones,” said BrightSign marketing director Ann Holland. “Emergency bulletins can be pre-loaded and tagged allowing the system to trigger a specific graphic or message to be displayed within a few seconds.”

Christie’s Phoenix open content management system allows emergency content to be efficiently transmitted to LCD flat panels and Christie MicroTiles, “including text, graphics, video, and live and prerecorded content,” said Christie spokeswoman Carmen Robert. As well, the Christie Network Operations Center (NOC), which monitors/manages thousands of digital signs for customers worldwide, “can remotely transmit information and instructions about a developing emergency to many locations instantly.”

LG offers a full range of digital displays that can be integrated with emergency notification systems; including 4K monitors, touch-screens and video walls. “Key features of LG displays include IPS technology, which offer superior picture quality with vibrant colors and wide viewing angles,” said Clark Brown, LG’s vice president of digital signage. “IPS screens also feature technology that helps reduce glare and shine, and protect from overheating.”

For 2015, Panasonic is offering the new LFE7 Series of professional LED full HD displays including the 65-inch TH-65LFE7, the 50-inch TH-50LFE7 and 42-inch TH-42LFE7. All offer thin bezels, industry-standard connection terminals (HDMI x 2, DVI-D, PC-IN), and control terminals (RS232C, LAN, IR-IN/OUT). The new 55-inch TH-55LFV70 LED-backlit LCD display is ideally suited for video walls, thanks to its ultra-narrow 0.14” bezel model. It features high brightness and an IPS LED backlit panel providing a wide viewing angle.

Rise Vision is a non-profit cloud-based digital signage platform that allows its users to create and control their digital signage system for free. Rise Vision is open source and can be used with a range of hardware. Rise Vision makes its money by selling optional hardware, software and support through its online outlet at store.risevision.com.

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