Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Questions about ENS beacons

Inspired by a recent post on cooper.com about the Amber Alert text capabilities in California and New York, I became interested in the Alertus ENS beacons that have now been installed on campus at the University of Regina.

All is well at 9:52 AM!

The display permits a message of 20 characters on each of 4 lines, so a total of 80 characters are visible at once.  It is not clear the maximum number of screens a single message can occupy.  There is a potential hazard of inopportune breaks between screens of a message (I recall having taken a picture of one such multi-screen messages, but the photo is nowhere to be found) and a lack of standard start and end characters for messages.

The beacons are intended to warn about life threatening emergencies such as Tornados, Chemical Spills or Armed Intruders. They will not activate/sound during a fire alarm.

Report a fire, receive information about (other) life-threatening emergency
There are 2 programmable (according to website) buttons on the beacon, the functions of which is unclear from examining the beacon.  It seems that the beacons are only meant to transmit information and not receive any reports of problems.  Riding on the Toronto Subway recently, I noticed a passenger assistance alarm (a thin yellow strip in each car). The penalty for improper activation is a $425 ticket.
Could an emergency reporting capability, with a similar deterrent for misuse, be workable at the University of Regina?

The beacons provide a visual notification capability that the fire alarm system does not have, but the ENS beacons are not used during fires.  Could the use of both systems add to the confusion in case of a fire?  If the fire alarm system was used for other emergencies as well,  could that create a different sort of confusion?   Could it be a problem that the beacons take people out of classrooms to find out the nature of the emergency?

Alertus  has desktop software that allows campus computers to receive emergency notifications.  I have installed it on my computer, but is this software installed on all (smart) classroom computers?  Getting back to the Amber Alert post  on cooper.com, should an emergency notifcation systems also include mobile devices (non-desktop)?  Should students register their cellphones to receive these messages on their phones?

It seems that these sorts of systems have come about recently in response to various tragedies in the States.  There seem to be a few different approaches to emergency notification.  Other alternatives I've found include e2campus and rave.

This discussion makes me wonder about the history of the development of current fire alarm systems.   They represent an important piece of infrastructure on campus.  Whereas I formerly only heard the alarm siren, I now hear crystal-clear announcements about what is going on and what to do.  I wonder what will happen to these systems as the need to address a wide array of potential emergencies becomes more pressing.

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