Hampton University and ERVE: Academia Learns a Tragic Lesson

by Teresa Walker

Like their counterparts at other institutions of higher learning, officials at Hampton University – a black private university located in Hampton, Va. – have long feared the possibility of a catastrophic event occurring on campus that would require them to quickly notify their own students and faculty members and take whatever actions are needed to protect them from harm.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, the concern felt by Hampton officials was both justified and magnified. Mass murders such as those experienced at Virginia Tech are almost impossible to predict, and extremely difficult to stop. But such random slaughters, as well as other mass-casualty non-terrorist-related first-responder events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and major fires, could be mitigated in large part if colleges and universities had access to, and used, an integrated alert-messaging capability that could electronically send out an emergency message to students’ or faculty members’ laptops, PDAs (personal digital assistants), or cell phones on short or no notice.

Looking at a paper blueprint to learn the specific layout of a dormitory, room building, or other structure is an acceptable way to proceed when there are no time restraints. During an emergency, however, finding and then combing through the same paper blueprint – or a large number of blueprints – takes an exorbitant amount of time, particularly when lives could be at risk.

A Major Breakthrough in Notification Capabilities

Even before the Virginia Tech tragedy, Hampton University wanted a way to improve its training plans and processes and, at the same time, enhance situational awareness across the campus. School officials and first responders wanted to know not only where all of the university’s emergency assets are located but also the easiest routes for firemen, policemen, EMS (emergency medical services) technicians and other first responders to follow to enter and exit the buildings on campus during times of potential disaster.

University officials decided that one important way to better protect those on campus was to obtain and install an Emergency Responders Virtual Environment (ERVE) system, an extremely helpful tool used to store and integrate the masses of critical information needed and used by first responders in times of a major emergency. A customized prototype of the Response Information Folder System (RIFS) developed by Alion Science and Technology, ERVE is an incident-response management tool that supports first responders, emergency managers, and other homeland-security operators and decision makers in their training, exercises, and mission planning and rehearsals. Among other things, it gives responders a two- and three-dimensional computerized model of the interior of a building or other structure. It also offers panoramic digital photography, an integrated relational database, an emergency alert system, and a Web browser interface.

Today, before an emergency responder ever steps foot in a building, Hampton officials would be able to view electronic models of that building’s interior to learn where everything is located – from a light switch down to an exit door. Of even greater importance is the fact that ERVE allows responders to notify others that an emergency is taking place; they can do this via a variety of communications outlets ranging from cell phones and PDAs to e-mails and public broadcast systems. ERVE also gives responders the ability to customize text-message notifications to a select group of people.

Real-Time Views of Historic Buildings

In addition, the system allows Hampton officials to position and manipulate cameras inside a facility to get a real-time view of an incident while it is occurring inside the building. This viewing capability saves considerable time, particularly when compared to the traditional process of finding, spreading out, and looking at blueprints. Hampton was established in 1868 and has many historic buildings that were built in the late 1800s. In the event of an emergency, university officials would have only a limited amount of time to respond, so there is a compelling need to make the most of every second.

ERVE allows officials to model the inside of the buildings and to run 3-D virtual models of the rooms in the building. A paper floor plan cannot provide that capability. The new system also enables officials to broadcast messages in real time back to a command center and/or to emergency responders.

The Virginia Tech tragedy caused the nation’s colleges and universities to take a second look at the vital need to be able to quickly alert numerous groups of people – faculty members and students as well as emergency responders – just as soon as possible after the start of an emergency or life-threatening incident. At Hampton University, the Virginia Tech tragedy prompted university officials to start prioritizing the facilities they want to model under ERVE.

Teresa Walker is the Assistant Provost for Technology at Hampton University located in Hampton, Virginia. She has had more than 25 years experience in higher education: educational media and technology, course delivery and design and distance education.  Mrs. Walker received her BA and MA from North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina.