In August 1966, as summer faded to fall and college students settled in, Charles Whitman climbed 27 floors of the University of Texas Tower armed with a rifle. By the time the former Marine sniper was shot down by an Austin police officer, 17 were dead and an additional 32 had been wounded during a rampage that lasted more than two and a half hours.
At the time of America's first mass campus shooting, there were no campus police forces, no campus-wide LED warning systems and no surefire way to keep students and staff out of danger. University officials could only hope local radio broadcasts urging people to stay away from the scene would be effective.
After four decades of high-profile mass shootings, including a 2007 incident at Virginia Tech that left 32 people dead and 17 injured, today's colleges and universities are ready to use every technological advancement possible to keep their campuses from being the next tragic headline.
"You cannot underestimate the value of technological developments that are occurring in life safety systems," said Mark Kurtzrock, CEO of Oakmont-based security technology company Metis Secure Solutions. "It's imperative that organizations have very good security plans and contingency plans, but one critical element is how quickly can we get information to people."
Although the push to upgrade security is a priority on campuses, it isn't entirely voluntary.
Amendments made to the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008 require colleges and universities to submit annual security reports that include descriptions of how text messaging or other electronic notifications will be used in the event of an emergency. Schools also have to conduct annual tests to ensure notification equipment is operational and must provide copies of their Annual Security Reports to students and employees.
On April 2, the Department of Homeland Security introduced the Campus Resilience Pilot Program, an initiative designed to develop best practices for campus security through collaborations among universities, including Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Domenic Ceccanecchio, vice president of public safety at Drexel, said the school has been boosting its emergency preparedness since 2008, when the school's police department was established and a state-of-the-art communications center built.
Mr. Ceccanecchio said the center houses a closed-circuit TV system attached to 430 cameras, 114 emergency telephones and a system that dispatches alerts onto LCD screens posted throughout the university. The Drexel Guardian system also allows students to sign up for text and email alerts, as well as to plug in personal information that could help during medical emergencies, and allows security to use GPS features in phones to locate missing people.
Mr. Ceccanecchio said schools involved in the federal pilot program have yet to meet, but he suggested that they will take an approach that explores both low- and high-tech options. He said a 12 percent drop in geographic crime and a 35 percent dip in crime within buildings in 2011 wouldn't have happened without a multi-pronged approach.
"I've been in contact with other institutions and people have said [the drop] must be because of the police department. My answer is, not necessarily," he said. "It's not the department, technology, the cameras or the notification system independently. It's a combination of all of the above, each component needs to work in concert with one another to be effective."
In the greater Pittsburgh area, at least three schools have added security technologies from Metis that go beyond text and email alerts, said Mr. Kurtzrock.
He said Point Park University, Carnegie Mellon University and Slippery Rock University are all using the Metis Secure Solutions' software, an interactive indoor/outdoor emergency notification system.
Working off the company's Command Center Software, which features interactive campus maps, officials are able to simultaneously send out text and email alerts while also activating lights, alarms, digital signs, public address systems and pre-recorded voice commands instructing crowds how to respond during emergencies.
Two-way emergency help boxes located throughout campuses connect directly to the command center and its related cameras to hone in on areas where callers report trouble. Administrators can send out targeted alerts to specific buildings or areas that face emergency situations without evacuating an entire campus.
The entire system is linked to a "redundant communications and power network" that uses a mix of Ethernet and other technologies for power during energy outages.
Madeline Miller, director of health and safety at Carnegie Mellon University, said the school started using the technology in high-security areas near Mellon Institute in 2006, but have since installed call boxes in Dithridge Garage.
She said the variety of notifications in the system helps universities get past the hurdle of trying to send tens of thousands of emails and text messages in a single moment.
John Pack, director of higher education security at Jupiter, Fla.-based security G4S Secure Solutions, agreed that mass text messages and emails must be supplemented by other notification solutions.
"Even at their very best, most text and email systems get 10,000 to 15,000 messages out an hour. That sounds like a lot, but what if I have 80,000 students?" Mr. Pack said. "That could set up a situation where people get the text two or three hours after the incident."
He said emerging technologies, such as systems that can send emergency alerts through a professor's PowerPoint presentation or communications devices that allow officers to record and share videos of an active scene, will be common supplements used on campuses in coming years.
However, he said simple things such as locked doors, police reports or a bullhorn in the right hand at the right time will always be the best supplement to any high-tech solutions designed for campus safety.
He said the campuses that miss out on that notion are likely to miss out on a lot of students in the process.
"Students show up expecting the security technology is there and available for them," he said.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.