Valley colleges poised to warn of crises

Fresno City College and its sister campuses soon will install solar-powered loudspeakers on top of buildings to help warn students and staff when the next emergency strikes.

They, like campuses across the nation, are pursuing many strategies at once to reach out during a crisis. Universities and colleges use everything from loudspeakers and radio broadcasts to e-mails and text messages to warn of potential dangers that can range from tornados to armed gunmen.

For example, the State Center Community College District campuses this year will add rooftop units to broadcast voice messages or sound a warning tone in outdoor areas. Fresno State is testing a system that would play emergency information through campus phones acting as speakers in classrooms and offices.

Experts say multilayered approaches are growing since the deadly 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech and the Clery Act -- the federal law aimed at campus safety -- have focused more attention on security and crime statistics.

S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for the nonprofit Security On Campus Inc. in King of Prussia, Pa., said the organization urges campuses to use multiple means to alert students and staff to an emergency.

"I think we're on the road to being safer," he said. "The main thing is that people on campus have realized ... the belief that 'it can't happen here' isn't true."

That realization is drawn partly from tragedies such as the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. Thirty-two people were killed by student Seung Hui-Cho in one of the worst mass shootings ever in the country; the killer also took his own life.

Federal officials later said the university could have saved lives by warning people more quickly. The shootings led to several changes in the Clery Act, which requires campuses to issue timely warnings and report annually on emergency response and evacuation procedures.

Locally, college officials say they have a variety of systems in place. Amy Armstrong, spokeswoman for Fresno State's police department, said it's clear that "one method is never going to reach all of the campus community."

For the Fresno-based State Center district, the newest mass notification system will be solar-powered, radio-controlled units similar to those at Fresno State. The rooftop units will be placed at Fresno City College, Reedley College and four campus centers.

The district is paying nearly $560,000 to buy and install the system along with additional emergency telephone towers.

Brian Speece, associate vice chancellor for business and operations, said district officials studied several options before choosing the warning system. He said it will complement other notification measures, which include a voluntary text message and e-mail system.

About 41,700 people across the district -- students and staff members -- have signed up for alerts. Officials used the system as recently as a few months ago, when a power outage forced cancellation of classes at Willow International.

Speece said officials know those text alerts won't reach everyone, especially since "students are supposed to turn off cell phones in class." At those times, other alert systems will help spread warnings. The rooftop units operate much like a public address system.

Fresno State and the University of California at Merced use similar systems as one of several ways to broadcast information about emergencies.

At UC Merced, for example, authorities can post digital messages on signs in the library and send messages via e-mail, text and voicemail. In January, for example, the campus relayed information about a high wind warning.

At Fresno State, authorities tapped emergency systems when suspected bank robbers drove through campus in 2006 and after an off-campus shooting in 2007.

The university's emergency notification approach includes messages on websites, e-mail, mobile signboards and safety coordinators. Last year, the campus installed a network of 34 loudspeakers to cover outdoor areas.

Armstrong, spokeswoman for the university's police department, said many procedures already were in place prior to the Virginia Tech shootings. But that tragedy also "heightened everyone's awareness," she said.