Johns Hopkins Installs Gunshot Detection System

November 20, 2008 12:28 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A university in Baltimore is adding what officials call "an extra layer of security" on campus: a system that determines the location of gunshots.

Not All Messages Were Delivered


Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is the latest entity to install gunshot detection equipment throughout campus, and is scheduled to formally unveil it today, the Baltimore Sun has reported.

The technology, from a Virginia-based company called SECURES, was donated in an effort to encourage more campuses to use it, the paper said.

Tracey Reeves, the university's spokesman, told the Sun, "There is not a concern that gunshots are out of control. This is added security for the Johns Hopkins campus and the surrounding area." 

Another university in the region, The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has a different gunshot detection system on its campus, according to the Sun.

Other entities with detection systems include Maryland's Prince George's County, Harrisburg, Pa. and Orange, N.J.

In January, ABC27 News in Harrisburg reported on that city's use of a gunshot detection system in one neighborhood. Officials said they thought violence was down in that area, but said people might be moving to other neighborhoods to cause trouble.

Charles Kellar, the city's police chief, told the station that in one of the 17 real cases of gunshots reported, a person was shot and would have bled to death without the system.

"It was about three o'clock in the morning where we did not get a call from a citizen, and had it not been for that system, we'd have never found that individual in time because he was pretty much incapacitated," Kellar said.

Tuesday's test in Baltimore comes just days after an emergency alert on Virginia Tech's campus didn't work as it was supposed to.

Background: Virginia Tech problems; study criticizes alert systems

In its first use, one part of Virginia Tech’s emergency notification system failed last week, and officials are not happy, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

On Nov. 13, the university was locked down after gunfire was reported near one of the dormitories. The emergency alert system was also activated: a message was posted on the university’s Web site and online boards, and an e-mail went out to everyone in the university. But the fourth component, which sends text messages, voicemails and e-mails to nonuniversity addresses, didn’t get all the notifications out. Nor did everyone receive two other messages sent later, the newspaper reported.

The “gunfire” turned out to be nail gun cartridges that were activated when someone slammed a garbage lid on them. But the system response left officials displeased. 

“We’re disappointed and frankly not happy, and we expect to get some assurances that this won't happen again,” Larry Hincker, the university’s spokesman, told the Times-Dispatch.

The 30,000 text, voice and e-mail messages are supposed to be delivered by a company called 3n Global, which blamed the problem on an Oracle database. That was not a satisfactory explanation, said Hincker, who added that Virginia Tech chose the company because it was supposed to be “the best” when it came to handling such a large volume of messages.

“If this is the best, then I worry about the other ones. We’re very disappointed,” he told the newspaper.

Virginia Tech and several other universities invested in emergency notifications after a gunman opened fire on Tech's campus in April 2007, killing more than 30 people. A study published in September said the text message alert systems aren’t effective, but for another reason.

Emergency alert systems that make use of text messages are often ineffective
at addressing large-scale emergencies, according to a new report by Patrick G. Traynor, an assistant professor in the School of Computer Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Emergency alert systems (EAS) were found lacking in terms of speed and breadth of message delivery due to the limitations of modern cellular networks.

“In particular, because of the architecture of cellular networks, such systems will not be able to deliver a high volume of emergency messages in a short period of time,” says the report.

Current cell phone networks are not only incapable of widely delivering messages quickly, but the study also found that the extra traffic created by the alert systems could potentially disrupt regular voice communications, including to emergency responders or 9-1-1 services.

Reactions: Campuses say text messaging works for them

Campuses across the nation have been rolling out emergency alert systems in response to campus shootings such as the Virginia Tech massacre and the shootings at Northern Illinois University. Many of them incorporate e-mails and calls to cell phones in addition to rapid text messaging.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville recently launched a new service some are calling RazALERT after the school's Razorback mascot. Students are automatically enrolled in the service.

At the University of Georgia in Athens, Steve Harris, the head of the Office of Security and Emergency Preparedness, says that their alert system, which aims at notifying 90 percent of those who opt into the service, has been working well for the most part. "We've seen the SMS (short message service) text messaging goes through very quickly," Harris said, who adds that their system does not rely only on text messaging and cell phones.

University of Texas officials also say that their four-year-old alert system works. "There are 12,000 subscribers and a 97 percent [success rate]," says David Cronk, UT's director of emergency preparedness.

Tony Schmitz, the CEO of Send Word Now, a company that provides on-demand response systems to college campuses, Fortune 500 companies and other sectors, says that their alert systems have not run into the problems highlighted in Traynor's study.

The company sends messages through cell phones, e-mail, pagers, Blackberries, instant message and other services, and constantly tests its systems to make sure that they run efficiently.

"The idea is that you want to get the message through, no matter what," Schmitz said to findingDulcinea. "We personally feel very comfortable that we are able to be very very responsive ... often within short periods of time," he added.

Opinion & Analysis: Do text message alert systems work?

In response to the Chronicle of Higher Education report, reader Terry agrees with Traynor in his criticism of school alert services: “These school alert systems are useless. We had a shooting alert and a few weather alerts like tornado warnings in the city area last year. When the messages came, most of the alerts already expired! They have to come up with a better way; for example, using digital message boards across campus or public computers, including those in the classrooms.”

But text messages can be effective if used as part of a larger strategy, says Chronicle reader Jason. “Our IT department just developed text messaging, computer pop-up and digital signage alert system. The idea behind it is that if we can notify even a small percentage of our relatively small community, we are in a much better position to handle a crisis than if we had nothing. So, is text messaging the silver bullet? No. Can it be used effectively as a part of a larger solution? I believe so.”

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