US Campus Uses High-tech Center to Keep Students Safe

When Hurricane Sandy swept over Long Island, New York, in October 2012, power was knocked out and traffic lights were inoperable. While driving in her car, Stony Brook University student Vishwaja Muppa, 21, was struck by a police car and later died. The death of Muppa, from India, was one of 53 that were blamed on the storm.

On Stony Brook’s campus, damage was limited and students who sheltered remained safe. But university officials took the hurricane’s visit as a wake-up call and planned a state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

Stony Brook hired two security technology firms, VCORE Solutions and IntraLogic Solutions, to install equipment and software  that would bring separate monitoring and communications systems under one roof.

“All the things we have in different silos, managed by different systems, are imported into one virtual environment,” Larry Zacarese, director of emergency management at Stony Brook, told VOA.

From the command center during Hurricane Sandy, Zacarese had little contact with other parts of the campus or local emergency responders off campus, he said. The new system shows images from cameras throughout campus and projects them on several monitors mounted across a 6½-meter-long wall.

Eyes everywhere

The system is regarded as a model and has been studied by other universities. Among the devices linked electronically are entry codes on hundreds of doors across campus, Global Positioning System units, fire alarms, video cameras and large, flat-screen television sets. The information from cameras and sensors is projected onto a large computer screen that shows the entire campus from above, including each building.

“We have a three-dimensional world overlaid on top of satellite imagery of our campus,” Zacarese said.

Software allows operators in the command center to expand each image and go into a building, checking its characteristics and the status of its sensors and alarms on each floor.

The system also allows the Emergency Operations Center to communicate in 15 ways with students across campus, utilizing social media, text messages, public address speakers and the 175 flat-screen television panels across campus. Operators can use the screens to warn students and faculty of a problem. They can use screens at all locations, or only at one site.

“If there is a fire in a chemistry lab,” Zacarese said, “we could communicate specifically to people in the chemistry building, as well as those in the immediate vicinity outside.”

Violence on campus

Zacarese said Stony Brook’s security system is vital in responding to violence and protecting those on campus. Last year, threatening messages of a “terroristic nature” appeared at a campus bus stop, he said. Using the information from cameras and other devices, police were able to identify the perpetrator and arrest him.

“In less than three hours,” Zacarese said, “we had someone in custody.”

There are more than 25,000 students enrolled at Stony Brook during a normal semester, but adding faculty and staff, campus population swells to about 50,000.

“The population size of this campus is essentially as big or bigger than some small cities,” Zacarese said.

The high-tech Emergency Operations Center can also be useful in police and fire investigations, he said, because investigators can use recorded data to find evidence and trace suspects.

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