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Back to Archives | Back to March 2008 Contents 

The Challenge of Communicating in an Urban University Environment

By Maureen S. Rush, Vice President for Public Safety, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Penn Quick Facts

  Student Enrollment: As of fall 2007, Penn has a total enrollment of 23,980, of whom 19,816 are full-time and 4,164 are part-time students. Of the full-time students, 10,163 are undergraduates, and 9,653 are graduate or professional students.

  Institutional Setting: The university’s 280-acre campus is located in the Philadelphia neighborhood known as University City, near the heart of Philadelphia. All university facilities except the Morris Arboretum, the Flower and Cook Observatory, and the New Bolton Center are located on the University City campus. The institution is primarily a residential campus.

  Division of Public Safety: The Penn Division of Public Safety employs 175 full-time staff, 116 of whom are full-time, armed police officers. The division also employs approximately 450 unarmed AlliedBarton Security Officers on its account.

fter the tragic events of September 11, 2001, in New York and Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, cities and states across the United States took a hard look at their current crisis management plans (CMPs). How would they respond to such a large-scale emergency? After the massacre at Virginia Tech in April 2007, cities, states, and especially universities across the United States conducted tabletop and tactical drills centering on communications. They all asked some version of the following question: how would they notify their communities to take refuge, or to leave the campus, in the event of a gunman on a rampage? What if the incident was taking place in an off-campus student housing area—how would they notify those students? Colleges and universities have expanded their responsibility for ensuring the safety of their community well beyond the traditional definition of “campus.” This new role presents many challenges, communications being at the top of the list, particularly for reaching students living in off-campus residences.

Prior to the Virginia Tech shootings, the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Public Safety had been in the process of reviewing the existing emergency communication technology on the market. The biggest concern was how to communicate with over 52,000 faculty, staff, and students, on and off campus, during a critical, life-challenging event. In August 2007, after an extensive review process, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) partnered with MIR3 in unveiling its new UPennAlert Emergency Notification System. This new emergency notification system has been added to the existing robust public safety program.

Overview of the Penn Public Safety Program

The Penn Division of Public Safety (DPS) is responsible for providing comprehensive safety and security services within the Penn Patrol Zone, which encompasses a 2½–square mile area that traverses the streets of Philadelphia in an area known as University City. The Penn DPS is composed of seven departments that report to the vice president for public safety: the Office of the Vice President, Penn Police Department, Fire and Emergency Services, PennComm Center (Communications Command Control Center), Security and Technology Services, Special Services, and Finance and Administration. The Penn DPS employs a total of 175 full-time staff, 116 of whom are sworn, armed Penn Police officers. The University of Pennsylvania Police Department is the largest private police force in Pennsylvania and the fourth largest in the country. The police department is CALEA accredited. The Penn DPS supplements the Penn Police through the deployment of approximately 450 AlliedBarton Security Officers. The security officers are employed across the Penn Patrol Zone to secure academic and residential buildings. Additionally, AlliedBarton officers are assigned to foot, bike, and mobile patrols on and off campus. The security officers also provide walking escorts and motorist assistance services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

State-of-the-Art Technology

The Penn public safety program utilizes such state-of-the-art technologies as closed-circuit television (CCTV), electronic access control, duress alarms, burglary alarms, and blue-light emergency phones to enhance its police and security patrol capabilities. Penn currently deploys 86 pan-tilt-zoom CCTV cameras on and off campus. PennComm Center personnel are assigned sectors of the patrol zone in which to conduct their 24/7 virtual patrols. In other words, the Penn DPS uses the cameras proactively to identify and deter criminal incidents as well as for investigatory follow-up.

University of Pennsylvania Crisis Management Plan

In 2000 Penn revamped its university-wide CMP. Today the plan is a robust document that outlines the procedures that the university would follow in case of a localized or national emergency. The CMP is a living document that is continually drilled and updated in response to the ever-changing challenges of our world. The Penn DPS is the point agency for the CMP, but the plan incorporates stakeholders throughout the entire university, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management, and partner organizations throughout the University City area.

Division of Public Safety Emergency Response Drills

The Penn DPS’s involvement with the CMP focuses primarily on prevention. One month prior to the Virginia Tech shootings, the Penn DPS conducted a simulated Rapid Response to an Active Shooter Incident large-scale field training exercise that was eerily similar to the scenario that unfolded at Virginia Tech. This particular drill was one of many conducted to prepare emergency first responders, as well as the Emergency Response Team, for situations that require extreme tactical coordination and precision. The key in such a situation is to provide rapid and clear communications with the community—in Penn’s case, with 52,000 people—in order to steer them away from the “hot zone.” It is precisely for this reason that Penn developed its new UPennAlert Emergency Notification System.

UPennAlert Emergency Notification System

Working with Penn’s Information Systems and Computing and security partner MIR3 Intelligent Notification, the Penn DPS designed and implemented a system that would allow it both to notify the Penn community during actual emergencies and to use the notification system during planned emergency evacuation or shelter-in-place drills, in order to familiarize the end users with the system.

The UPennAlert Emergency Notification System is designed to disseminate critical information to approximately 52,000 members of the Penn community within minutes via voicemail, text messaging, and e-mail. All Penn faculty, staff, and students have the ability to register emergency contact information for multiple devices, such as desk and cell phone numbers as well as e-mail addresses. Students also have the option of including emergency contact information for parents, guardians, or spouses.

A key feature of the UPennAlert is “call bridging,” which enables a group of users to connect instantly to a conference call. It enables the university’s Crisis Management Team, the key university decision makers, to quickly convene via a conference call to discuss an incident. The Penn DPS has successfully used this feature on several occasions to date for noncritical issues.

Testing the System

In collaboration with university partners, faculty, staff, and students, the Penn DPS conducted its inaugural UPenn Alert Emergency Notification drill on November 1, 2007. The exercise was conducted to test the system’s capacity to deliver a timely emergency notification to 450 participants. Results showed that the UPennAlert was successfully delivered to 95 percent of participants.

The Penn DPS plans to conduct a campuswide UPennAlert Emergency Notification drill in 2008, with the objective of further assessing the system’s functionality and identifying potential challenges to the task of notifying 52,000 people in the event of a true emergency.

The UPennAlert Emergency Notification System provides Penn faculty, staff, students, and parents/guardians with an additional layer of protection in emergency response.

The systems will be used in conjunction with the well-established emergency communications methods that predate this upgrade, including universitywide broadcast e-mail, online updates via university Web sites, the coordinated use of public media outlets, and public address systems within all college houses (student housing).

Like any technology, emergency notification systems serve as just one more tool in the public safety toolbox. Communicating with a large, decentralized population who lives not only on campus but also throughout the neighborhood surrounding the university is challenging. The Penn DPS is confident that the UPennAlert Emergency Notification System will assist it in disseminating urgent, critical information—which goes a long way toward safeguarding the Penn community.



From The Police Chief, vol. 75, no. 3, March 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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