Anyone shopping at Target, Walgreens or Urban Outfitters has likely noticed that bluetooth beacons have become an important tool in the retail sector, enabling vendors to track in-store foot traffic and push promotions to shoppers’ smartphones based on where they are in the store. It’s not just retail that creating a buzz with beacon technology. We see the same rapid adoption happening in other areas that affect our everyday lives, including transportation, shipping and healthcare.

A lesser-known but very compelling application for beacon technology that I have been discussing with schools is location-aware safety and emergency services. This is particularly useful in campus and educational environments because students and staff can be issued mobile apps that enable two-way communication between beacons and smartphones. Among the use cases are the following:

Location-specific alerts: Universities and schools often broadcast text message alerts to an entire community following criminal activity such as an on-campus assault. Beacons allow messages to be sent to those in the immediate vicinity of an event (for example, warning away students who are detected walking toward an active crime scene).

Location-aware response: In the case of an injury or accident, beacons can speed up first response by displaying the nearest beacon code to the person calling for help. Campus services will know exactly where that beacon is located and can arrive at the scene more quickly.

Emergency communication: Beacons can provide “panic-button” services, enabling a student who is unable to talk on the phone to press a button and immediately alert campus security of an emergency at his or her location.

Emergency egress: In the case of a fire or evacuation, beacons can push out to smartphone users a map of the closest exit based on each user’s current location. A Bluetooth sensor at each exit can also map detected smartphones to provide first responders a “heat map” of the number of people passing through each exit.

Many universities have deployed beacons to enhance the on-campus experience, as well as to support admissions and recruiting efforts. Services such as campus wayfinding, managing long lines at school offices and discounts at campus coffee shops encourage users to install beacon apps and keep their Bluetooth transmitters turned on. The addition of emergency services becomes a logical and cost-effective extension of these existing beacon deployments.

To get started with an emergency services beacon rollout, campus IT staff should consider the following steps:

  • Take inventory: Many institutions have beacons deployed and don’t even know it — for instance, embedded in Wi-Fi access points. Their first step is to confirm what they have.
  • Extend value: Emergency and safety services are a great add-on to existing beacon deployments, and in this context can be deployed at incremental cost and effort.
  • Drive utilization: Beacons work only when users install a corresponding app and enable Bluetooth. Services such as campus wayfinding and shop discounts can encourage participation.

Any beacon effort requires careful thought around app development. I make sure to ask customers whether they want to work from an existing app (from a provider such as Piper) or instead intend to create a custom beacon app to deliver unique value to users. It’s important to consider both the upfront and ongoing cost of any custom development effort.

Beacons are emerging as a successful technology with a host of compelling applications. The advent of beacon-based emergency and safety applications is a powerful example of this trend.

Read about how beacon technology is improving how government and constituents interact.