Digital Signage

Sign Age: Calling All Screens

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Integrating emergency alert systems with campus signage.

Digital signage and mobile screens are now an integral part of emergency communication systems, but many institutions have yet to implement the latest solutions for rapid, campus-wide delivery of alert messages. Recent advances are making it easier to integrate emergency notification systems (ENS) with digital signage solutions, but it’s important to know which ENS works well with which signage content management system (CMS).

Several early adopters of digital signage at larger universities have already connected their signage screens to ENS, but many others are only now moving to meet the latest NFPA code and UL standards. These new codes require emergency notification and instructions to be delivered via voice communications and visible signals that include text, graphics or other displayed communication methods.

Emergency alert systems should also be able to override all other campus AV systems, including classroom flatpanel displays and projection screens. Text and email emergency messaging, on the other hand, require individuals to “sign up” to receive those methods of notification on their mobile devices.

Campus police and IT departments typically are involved in the selection of ENS. With the addition of visual media displays, AV and digital signage stakeholders are involved in the selection of audio/video components and interfaces. The latest AV modulators and encoders from Blonder Tongue, AdTec, Toner Cable and others are equipped with an emergency alert feature. But not all digital signage CMS offer that capability.

In some cases, campus digital signage works in silos with several departments running separate screens, often with very basic CMS lacking emergency alert features. When integrating disparate signage networks under a single management umbrella, it is particularly important for the new CMS to have alert capability.

Whether deploying a new campus-wide solution or updating a first generation DS system, key points to note about digital signage software include:

  • An Emergency Messaging feature is a “must have.”
  • Not all solutions interface easily with every ENS on the market.
  • Solutions designed for integration with ENS may only offer mobile integration and other special features as an extra-cost option.
  • Major DS and ENS software is now SaaS or cloud-based.

Digital signage CMS vendors will readily share information about which mass notification systems their product has successfully been integrated with. For instance, Tightrope Media System’s Carousel has been integrated with CAP (Common Alerting Protocol), Visix with several systems (Alertus, Blackboard Connect, e2Campus and Rave Mobile Safety) and Alpha Video’s CastNET EVN with Bosch Praesideo’s digital public address and emergency sound system.

Although a number of the signage software packages have an “emergency messaging” feature, Hypersign claims it is the only comprehensive package that can be used without the need for an additional ENS. Hypersign’s CEO, Neil Willis, cites the University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine where Hypersign was deployed more than a year ago to about 20 displays as an example. Earlier this year, the med school upgraded to the cloud-based Hypersign v2.0. “Hypersign Alert sends visual emergency notification to digital signs, desktops and tablets throughout the facility as well as the overhead sound system,” reported Willis. “We could just as easily tie into the ENS system, but the customer chose to accomplish what they wanted with just Hypersign Alert. The only added benefit with integrating with the ENS would be text alerts.”

For security reasons, IT and AV professionals at many institutions are unable to divulge system components and/or their identity. But, in the interest of helping colleagues and furthering safety efforts, senior management at a couple of universities that have been delivering emergency alerts to signage screens for several years offered us their insights.
The West Virginia University (WVU) Information Stations network has been in operation for seven years and has more than 100 commercial grade digital signs across three campuses, reaching an estimated 40,000 daily campus pedestrians. “From the beginning, we targeted creating a robust digital signage network for our normal campus internal marketing messaging that also included an emergency messaging feature,” reported Spencer Graham, MBA, DSCE, Manager of Operations for West Virginia University’s information stations, interactive video network and web services. “This required us to commit to serious software, including X2O Media for standard screens and Four Winds Interactive for touchscreens, to drive the content across the network and support the emergency messaging criteria.”

According to Graham, WVU Police purchased e2Campus software that integrates and manages the emergency message distribution via text message, email message and an RSS feed that triggers the signage screens. In the event of an emergency, senior administrators and the WVU Police issue an emergency alert and maintain continued messaging until the emergency is taken care of. “We have enjoyed tremendous support and commitment from our university administrators to sustain an ever-growing network of standard digital signage, wayfinding and touchscreen technologies that tells the good news about WVU while assisting in protecting our campuses in the event of an emergency.”

The only challenge for WVU was to get non-IT staff to fully grasp how the software works when needed in an emergency. “The Assistant Police Chief was tasked to issue the alert, and spent time training on the software user-interface so the correct boxes are checked, etc.,” Graham recalled. “We also instituted a further assurance: a verbal conversation between him and our own IT person as soon as the alert is issued to confirm the message has been sent and displayed as wanted.”

Another university’s senior staff provided the following information but requested anonymity. “In our Student Union, we are housing Visix’s Axis TV system, which was originally installed seven years ago. We currently have 11 displays running on that system throughout the building, and our campus Res Life department is using it as well for displays in each of the residence halls. Visix offers an alert module that we’ve purchased, and its intended purpose is to allow administrators of the Axis system to send an alert to all channel players (which run the displays) at once. That alert will then take over all displays until deactivated or the preset time for the alert elapses.”

Our source also informed us that, “Our intent was for our campus Emergency Operations Center to send an alert to the Axis system. Rather than have them log into Axis and send it from there, however, we were able to make use of the alerts they were already sending out via email and text using the Rave notification system. Visix provided us with its CAP API module, which receives information directly from the EOC’s Rave system when an alert is sent, importing it into the alert module in our Axis system. It took quite a while to address various configuration issues to make this work, but ultimately we reached a point at which it seems to function consistently. We have had a number of incidents that have been reported by the EOC that have made it through to our displays within a minute or two at most. Again, this content (alert) takes over all displays at once.

“The only real issue we’ve encountered is related to the removal of the alerts. We are able to do this manually by logging into Axis, but there is no effective way to cancel an alert from the Rave system via our CAP API. As a result, we are dependent upon notification from the EOC that the incident has passed so we can remove the alert and revert our displays back to their usual playlists. This is, however, a logistical issue rather than a technical one at its core, and we are working to address it.”

Periodic testing of emergency messaging systems and software has proven to assure the network and protocols will perform as expected. Some institutions send out a test message monthly and others, every quarter.

Many signage CMS packages provide historical data on disseminated alerts. For instance, the latest version of AxisTV audits alert actions, including activation, deactivation, updates and configuration to provide visibility into historical alert incidents.

Emergency Notification Systems are an indispensible part of any campus communication network, even more so when well integrated with digital signage and classroom AV systems. Careful selection of software and attention to user training will help to assure that ENS, DS and AV work well together when duty calls.

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