Failure on Display

Student Submission by Christina Whitworth

Broken Emergency Notification Unit / digital clock

Several dysfunctional digital clocks around the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo campus have recently been removed as part of an effort led by the Director of Security, Rick Murray, to eliminate what he calls, “failure on display.” According to Vernon Medeiros, the Facilities Asset Manager, whose department is responsible for the units upkeep, the principle purpose of these “clocks” has never been time-keeping.

Murray said the devices are properly termed “Emergency Notification Units” (ENUs), and that their role in the emergency alert system is paramount, whereas their clock function is secondary. During an applicable emergency, each ENU flashes to attract attention, then voices and scrolls a customizable emergency alert message.

This role of the units was intended to be tested during the active shooter drill that was cancelled on Feb. 22, 2019. In preparation for the exercise, Associate Director of Campus Center, Lai Sha Bugado, said that she helped create a building-specific lockdown plan for Campus Center based on the university’s campus-wide lockdown procedures.

The administrative heads of several UH Hilo buildings, including Bugado’s, were asked to make lockdown plans by security, which offered its guidance, support, and feedback throughout the process, said Bugado. The Student Services Center also made a lockdown plan, which was posted on the second floor entrance door to ensure everyone in the building stayed informed prior to the event.

Further preparatory efforts by Facilities Planning and Construction were made to the ENUs in the days before the planned drill. Many reverted back to various states of dysfunction within a day or two. Out of 100 ENUs documented during the last two weeks of February, 11 were unplugged or turned off, five displayed nonsensical graphics, three had dramatically wrong times listed, two erred between five and eight minutes, and the remaining 79 were within three minutes of the correct time. Murray said he feels that an ENU’s display within three minutes of the accurate time is an acceptable range for the clocks, considering these imperfect circumstances.

When UH Hilo student Ashlynn Atwood learned that “safety” was the chief function of what she had only ever thought of as the UH clocks, she asked, “If that is one of their main functions on campus, why aren’t they being better maintained?”

The ENUs, priced at about $1,500 a piece, are not easy to fix, according to Medeiros. He said that it is not as simple as changing the hands on the face of an analog clock. Each ENU communicates with one of four receiving and transmitting stations on campus every hour on the hour via radio signal. When properly functioning, these four main stations update and synchronize all the digital time-keepers to an internet-based atomic clock, the most precise clock in the world.

In response to “millions of complaints about the clocks” over the years, Medeiros said that he has worked continuously with the vendor that manufactures the units, BRG Precision, to rectify new and re-occuring problems. The manufacturer suspects Hilo’s climate to be at least a partial culprit, since they report no such problems with their mainland units at other universities.

BRG’s explanation is plausible, said Medeiros, based on his observation of increased problems with the system during periods of heavy rain, and in light of the fact that Hilo often tops the list of U.S. cities with the most annual rainfall.

Medeiros said that BRG Precision has backed its warranty far past its expiration date, replaced and reengineered dozens of units, as well as replaced all four of the transmitting and receiving stations, free of additional charge. When asked to estimate the highest percentage of clock dysfunction since they were installed five years ago, Medeiros said that at worst, approximately 80 percent of the clocks were functional or, conversely, about 20 percent were non-functional.

According to UH Hilo IT Specialist, Gary Nekoba, it is possible that the issues with the ENUs could be caused by an internet-based virus, but he could not say for certain without evaluating the problem firsthand. Kristi Doran, the IT Helpdesk Coordinator, said that the IT Department has never been called upon to do any such evaluation of the ENUs since their installation, as far as she is aware.

When asked about the emergency alert function tests on the ENUs, Murray said that ENUs with clock problems had been tested in the past and shown to still perform their emergency alert functions as expected. However, he could not verify that all the ENUs emergency alert functions worked properly due to the fact that there are several hundred of the units on campus. This large number of ENUs renders it impractical, if not impossible, to check the emergency alert function of them all, he said.

“We rely on the community to assist in pointing out units that don’t work,” explained Murray. Any ENU that had been left unplugged past its 15 min battery backup life would not be able to fulfill its emergency alert function either.

However, Murray said that though ENUs are potentially helpful for alerting UH Hilo campus visitors about emergencies, the majority of people on campus do not need them because emergency alerts pertinent to campus are sent directly to their cell phones or via email. However, Murray said that ENUs are sometimes an inappropriate means of communicating certain emergency events.

For example, when there was an incident involving a person making threatening remarks in the library a few months ago, which police resolved peacefully, an emergency alert from the ENUs was not deemed appropriate. If the dozen or so ENUs in the library had been used instead, it could have escalated the situation. Other events such as earthquakes are self-evident, so emails or mobile messages are more appropriate means of relaying additional information in those instances.

Moving forward, Medeiros recommends that the university systematically upgrade to BRG Precision’s newer product line, which has already been installed in the university’s new College of Pharmacy building. The advantage of the newer version is that each unit connects to the internet directly rather than via the four intermediary stations, which should reduce the frequency of connection errors.

Murray said that going forward, he recommends a plan to remove all the ENUs that do not work and redistribute units that do from other areas. Though Murray said he wants “to assist the university in getting as much bang for its buck out of these units,” he said he does not recommend continuing to invest in ENU maintenance. As the ENUs break down, he recommends they ultimately be removed for good. Murray said that new technological advancements in the field, such as phone-based apps, should be invested in instead in order to complete this transformation of “failure on display” into “safety and security on display.”

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