Two local students have developed software to help schools communicate during emergencies and are in the middle of a fundraising campaign to get it off the ground.
Liam Cardenas, 18, and Erwan Lent, 17, created Project VPASS — Virtual Public Announcement Security System so that administrators and teachers can send messages to specific parties or widespread emergency alerts, all using the system of classroom computers already in place.
They founded L&C Software Solutions last year after taking a computer science class together and worked as freelancers until November, which is when they started Project VPASS development.
Cardenas is a Dos Pueblos High School senior and Lent attends Middle College — taking Santa Barbara City College classes and independent study to get his high school diploma. The bulk of the programming work is done, helped along by Lent’s month-and-a-half winter break at SBCC.
There is no on-campus communication tool for emergencies right now and no district-wide emergency system, which is what prompted Cardenas and Lent to come up with Project VPASS.
“Basically how it works is, an administrator either goes on their phone and opens up the app, or goes online to the web panel,” Lent said. “They send either a normal announcement — targeting the exact audience they want — or an emergency alert. Those are very fast, with one page, adding text or image or voice, then sending it out. That’s pretty much it. It’s very simple to use.”
Emergency alerts and messages can be sent to classroom computers and any mobile devices, including iPads and cell phones.
They say the system has great potential for school safety, but will also help schools become more efficient. Messages can be targeted to an exact audience — all teachers, one wing of the school or just the desktop computers — instead of email blasts or mass text messaging, Lent said.
The program still will work without power or Internet, they noted, since the alerts can target mobile devices — that don’t need power — and send text messages through cell service, which doesn’t require Internet service.
“A PA system can be disabled for whatever reason; that’s the downside of having a physical, built-in infrastructure,” Cardenas said. “With ours, it’s completely portable and runs on mobile devices, so any phone with 3G can get the app and read messages, and regular cell phones can get text messages.”
Student cell phones don’t have to be included in the system — like at an elementary school — but add an extra level of security, they said.
“Let’s face it — I mean, school officials may try to ban cell phones in schools, there have been many efforts to ban or confiscate them, but it doesn’t work,” Cardenas said. “Kids are going to have these, and we have to get over this fact. It’s best to utilize the structure of lots of phones everywhere to make schools safer.”
They’ve had their former computer science professor, Stephen Strenn at SBCC, advise them on their programming design and security plan, and already found an off-site server to use.
Since the idea started, they’ve been talking to Santa Barbara Unified School District officials about the product, and hope to eventually test it out on one of the school campuses.
The district hasn’t made any commitments to using the software but is very interested in the project, according to district technology director Todd Ryckman.
“We can’t commit to anything, but are very amazed at what they have done,” he said.
If the final project could be helpful to the district, he said, he would bring it before the Board of Education. They’re still negotiating about testing the system out, as Cardenas and Lent hope to use Dos Pueblos as a beta testing site.
Ryckman said there is currently no emergency alert system besides TeleParent, which does call-outs to parents, and not every school even has a working PA system.
Cardenas and Lent said the school pulls the fire alarm for all manner of emergencies — from lockdowns to earthquakes — so it doesn’t tell people any information about what’s happening. Dos Pueblos does not have a working PA system, Ryckman said, but is in the process of installing VOIP phones in every classroom and exterior speakers so any staff member can make all-campus announcements.
Cost is a prohibiting factor to schools implementing emergency alert systems, so Cardenas and Lent want to ensure their product is affordable to any school that needs it.
“I just think it’s really important to bring something like this to the market, because there really isn’t any real competition with this product,” Cardenas said. “It seems like we’re so used to mobile devices being around, but it’s only been five to 10 years since having smartphones, and there really hasn’t been much time for a company to come along and develop something like this.”
They’ll provide installation, server space and technical support, but have designed the software to be user-friendly to keep support costs down.
Both plan to attend UC Santa Barbara’s computer science program in the fall, so they can continue their work — hopefully with local schools, if all goes according to plan.
They are fundraising right now for legal and licensing fees associated with writing up contracts and developing apps, and have raised only about $700 of their $7,500 goal.
To help and learn more about Project VPASS, click here for their fundraising page. For a $500 donation, they will provide the program for free for a year to a school of the donor’s choice.