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Wireless alert is asset to county

System still has a few kinks to be worked out, but it has been put to use several times.

There are a few kinks to be ironed out, but, overall, the Wireless Emergency Notification System has been a great asset to Luzerne County, officials say.

The system was put into action in the county in the spring as a way to ensure emergency notifications reached the public as soon as possible. It’s been utilized several times by the colleges and universities in the county.

Wilkes University, one of approximately 50 schools and municipalities in the county that employ the system, said the program has been successful. Wilkes implemented its own system that allows for text messaging and voice messaging notifications. Only members of the emergency response team receive messages from the county system.

The university has used the messaging system three times: following the report of the sexual assault of a college student at Kirby Park; after an attack on a university coach, and a commuter advisory when part of South Main Street was closed.

“Although it was not one of our students (in the report of a sexual assault), we wanted to make our students aware since many walk by or through Kirby Park,” said Chris Bailey, director of campus support services.

Accidental message

The system is not always perfect. Misericordia University dealt with a minor error when an accidental message was sent to students saying classes were cancelled due to weather. Officials called Inspiron Logistics immediately and rectified the problem.

“The opportunity does exist that somebody can hit the wrong button,” said Scott Dettling, president and founder of Inspiron Logistics, which operates the text-messaging system.

After that first message was sent out, a second one followed, advising students to disregard the previous one.

Although the bugs are still being worked out, Dettling is confident in the system.

“There’s no better way to instantly inform the community. EMA has selected a perfect technology to ensure citizen safety.”

Room for improvement

The need for the wireless system was emphasized by this year’s shooting at Virginia Tech, Dettling said.

“Obviously following Virginia Tech, this becomes a big need in the academic world.”

Bob Cragle, associate director of campus safety at Misericordia, said the NEPA Collegiate Consortium meets once a month to discuss issues and ways each school can assist each other. They may also join with the Lehigh Valley Collegiate Consortium in the future.

“Any new technology has room for improvement and that’s why the consortium meets,” Cragle said. “We discuss ways to improve the system. I want to hear when the other schools have a problem. I like being a part of that.”

On Nov. 19, Keystone College held a campus-wide drill that required the help of more than 250 volunteers, according to Jan Kaskey, professor of education and emergency response coordinator at Keystone.

The four-hour drill simulated campus shooters and a hostage situation.

“The entire community was notified to make sure there was no panic,” Kaskey said. “We did a mock lockdown to test our capabilities. Our system worked beautifully. There was no chance of panic. It was a very, very comprehensive drill.”

This was a chance to test the collaborative efforts of Lackawanna, Wyoming and Luzerne counties, since representatives from all three counties assisted with the drill.

“The consortium has the capacity to involve all institutions,” Kaskey said. “We all can help each other. I am trying to get all schools to get involved in these initiatives and drills. This drill gave us the opportunity to do that across the collegiate line.”

Tool for campus

Dettling is aware that some students have become frustrated with the test messages but says tests are imperative to allow for the system to work properly.

“In the wisdom of the school officials, they want to clearly determine that the system is effective and that it’s working and when an alert is initiated that the people get them. It may be annoying once in awhile to get these test messages, but the students should know that this is a collective effort on behalf of the school that will assist in student safety,” Dettling said. “At the end of the day, it’s all meant to ensure the campus and student safety.”

Officials say the tests will slowly decrease and soon the system will become strictly for emergency only. Bailey said the system can’t be used to send a message about every crime that occurs in Wilkes-Barre.

“We just want to make sure it’s a tool for our campus.”

Caroline Chronowski, information technology director at Penn State Wilkes-Barre, said the school’s system is strictly for emergencies and school cancellations.

“We have some people who want to use the system for every little thing, and I have to tell them, ‘No, it’s only for emergencies.’ If students continually get messages that aren’t important, they will start ignoring them and won’t use the system.”

As with any new technological system, problems need to be ironed out and communication between county administrators and those utilizing the system is important.

One issue the county is facing is getting the community to sign up for the system. Fred Rosencrans, technical support supervisor and data manager at the county Emergency Management Agency, said people are hesitant when new things are introduced.

“It comes down to the individuals in the county. We really are marketing this system,” he said. “We’re really looking to take it a step forward, but without the support and people not taking the stand to subscribe, we don’t know what else to do.”

Dettling has the same mindset.

“Issues that school officials are running into now is the subscription rate. Students and parents should really be aware of the realities of a system like this. The bottom line is there’s really no communication method that can reach 100 percent of a campus or a population,” he said.

Subscription rates for Wilkes are almost half, according to Bailey. “We’re not dreamers, we know we’re never going to get 100-percent participation,” he said. “All of these systems are voluntary, so driving participation would be hard with anything.”

Bill Barrett, director of safety and security at Luzerne County Community College, Nanticoke, and chairman of the NEPA Collegiate Consortium, has one main goal: to continue encouraging students to sign up for the system.

“When students come in for their IDs or for parking permits, we hand out pamphlets saying it’s a great thing to sign up for,” he said. “We are always reaching out to find the means to get other students to sign up.”

A good solution

Barrett, a former police chief in Wilkes-Barre, understands the importance of communication. “The system seems to be working fine for us. We use our e-mails and phone messages so we’re always looking for ways to improve our internal communication.”

Barrett feels LCCC is well prepared for any situation.

Rosencrans said the county continues to work to fine tune the system, which has additional capabilities it hopes to utilize in the future.

“The school districts offering it alone is worth it because, God forbid, we have a Virginia Tech incident,” he said. “Now all of these schools have an avenue to get notifications out other than the media and not having to relying on other people. This alone is worth its weight in gold.”

The county had intended to implement a system like this, Rosencrans said, but the Virginia Tech incident helped move the process along.

He is also glad the county took the step forward and offered this system to the public.

“We feel it’s a tremendous asset to our county. We wanted a good solution to get information out.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Luzerne County

Public Users: 1,195-users who went through the county’s website to subscribe. www.luzernecounty.org

Internal users or sub-groups: 2,857

Total users: 4,052

Maximum number of subscribers allowed: 500,000

Safe Schools Initiative

One of the next steps is to get area school districts to join the system. Bear Creek Charter School is the area’s first school district to utilize the system and now has 65 users.

The Safe Schools Initiative features a Hotline, operated by Help Line, through which students can anonymously report threats of potential violence, or speak with professionals about issues such as bullying, drug and alcohol problems or any topic of concern to young people. The hotline is 1-866-700-KIDS.

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