News Release - July 6, 2007

Warning system used by Air Force gets increased attention

Some say alerts could have saved lives at Va. Tech
By Patrick Winn -
Posted : June 25, 2007

An emergency alert system favored by the Air Force is in demand following the April shooting rampage on Virginia Tech’s campus.

More than 250,000 Defense Department personnel, mostly in the Air Force and Navy, are plugged into an instant notification system zapping messages to laptops and cell phones. For many bases, it’s the go-to medium when violent storms approach, large-scale operational exercises commence or security forces need to notify the base of a crime or emergency, such as a health scare.

It’s also the sort of split-second alert system some analysts believe could have spared lives at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where student gunman Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people. Roughly two hours separated Cho’s initial 7:15 a.m. killings, which left two students dead in a dormitory, and a much bloodier frenzy inside a classroom building one half-mile away.

The school’s first official report of a campus murder appeared in student and faculty e-mail inboxes just as Cho began his second killing wave.

Now universities and even entities such as power plants, hoping to offset their own potential disasters, are exploring alert technology used by the Army, Navy, Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Pacific Command and others.

In the Defense Department, the most widely used emergency notification provider is AtHoc, which has headquarters in California and is tailored to run on military networks. The company took on a surge of nonmilitary inquiries after the Virginia Tech killings and is now working to close several dozen contracts.

“A university campus is not that different from a base,” said AtHoc President Guy Miasnik, who started the company in 1999 with customized eBay software that transmits auction alerts.

“Both bases and universities are usually located in a small town,” he said. “Both are highly networked. Both have personnel indoors and outdoors, in labs, et cetera. You’re looking at the same type of environment.”

One of AtHoc’s first military contracts was Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base two years ago. Its most recent contract set up an alert network at Air University and Air War College, located at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. The system is also set up at Lackland and Randolph Air Force bases in Texas; Edwards and Vandenberg Air Force bases in California; Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska; Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; Yokota Air Base, Japan; and others.

Most alerts are sent to base personnel via a small window rising at the corner of computer monitors. They can also transmit to cell phones or any network already set up on base. Alerts can contain voice files recorded on the fly and digital photos.

Master Sgt. Robert English, superintendent of command and control at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, sends out 20 to 30 alerts each day. A recent alert read “A Tornado Watch has been issued for Vance AFB. A warning will be issued if needed. Valid until 0330.”

“We’re in tornado alley,” English said. “It really helps us keep people aware of what’s going on ... especially maintainers and students on the flight line.”

At Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, alerts have warned the base of high winds, changes in security levels, earthquake drills and, recently, a missing child.

“That popped on the screen and basically said, ‘Security forces is searching for a little girl. Here’s a description,’” base spokesman John Haire said. “It wasn’t long until somebody noticed the kid and said, ‘Hey, I got her.’”

Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and, now, the Virginia Tech massacre are helping shape mass notification methods, which increasingly rely on technological advances.

The federal government has cleared the way to send text message alerts over all cell-phone networks. A Virginia firm called “Square Loop” allows colleges and local governments to send distinct alert messages depending on the recipient’s cell phone location. Similarly, the “VoiceGate” service used by Canadian intelligence lets agents plot a notification area on an overhead map, then send messages to each home phone in the plotted zone, said Neil Spooner, a manager with ESRI, VoiceGate’s partner firm.

English said the Air Force has plans to expand AtHoc at even more of its bases and commands.