Why Practice Makes Perfect with your Emergency Communications System

Why Practice Makes Perfect with your Emergency Communications System

On January 13, 2018, in Hawaii, at 8:07 a.m., a ballistic missile alert was accidentally issued via Hawaii’s Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alert System over television, radio, and cellphones. According to a news report, the alert stated that there was a ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii and advised residents to seek shelter immediately, with the message: “This is not a drill.”

Thirty-eight minutes later, a second alert was sent that read: “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”

State officials blamed a miscommunication during a drill at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for the first message.

That type of miscommunication and mistake is the reason why every emergency communications system (ECS) should be tested and reviewed to ensure that the right messages are getting out at the right time.

Elements of an Emergency Communications System
Facility emergencies can happen anytime and anywhere. Whether it’s a natural disaster or workplace violence, the threats are real. Security teams are always preparing to mitigate all types of emergencies, and the foundation of every emergency plan is an ECS.

As security professionals, you know that an emergency requires a clear chain of command and specific procedures to follow. Employees may know what to do in an emergency situation because you have trained and re-trained them, but they still could become confused or taken by surprise. Your vendors and visitors won’t likely know what to do or where to go, as they have not been part of that training. And once the emergency is over and the all-clear is given, that also needs to be communicated in the most efficient manner possible. Overall, throughout any emergency, your security team needs to convey important messages. Will those messages be communicated, clearly heard, and understood?

That’s where an ECS plays a critical role. An ECS is a means to provide alerts to your campus population as quickly as possible, whether it’s a small K–12 school or a college campus with multiple buildings in multiple areas. The ECS should notify everyone, no matter where they are on campus, regarding:

  • What is happening, such as an active shooter event or a visitor who is a danger to students and staff.
  • What to do, where to go, and when to go.
  • When it is safe to return to the building (This last communication is often overlooked, especially if tensions are high and there is confusion).

Overall, an emergency communications system is a critical tool for a security team to reach all students, employees, vendors, and visitors, whether they are on campus or in the immediately surrounding areas. It should be able to provide critical information and notifications loudly and clearly, even accommodating background noise.

For example, according to a news report, in the active shooter event at a St. Louis school a few short weeks ago, the school intercom announced, “Miles Davis is in the building.” That was the school’s code for an intruder, and students and teachers knew to take refuge. In that instance, according to the report, the ECS worked, and it helped to save lives.

The Importance of Audio
Many of today’s emergency communications systems allow the sending of alerts via text messaging or email when an emergency occurs. Other systems make it possible for an access control system to lock down a door based on what’s seen on a video surveillance camera. Those solutions are viable; however, any effective ECS will incorporate audio as the main element.

Why? Because voice and audio are something that humans instinctively respond to and have since birth. Imagine a visitor walking into a building and they see someone waving at them. They can’t hear them, so they simply think that person is waving hello. But if they speak, and they can be heard, that visitor can hear their words: “Stop! Don’t go in there. It’s dangerous. Turn around and leave.” It’s easy to get all the details of a situation when audio and sound are present.

Audio solutions such as intercoms and IP speakers that communicate clearly play a critical role in any ECS. HD voice solutions can convey important messages that a video surveillance camera, VMS, or access control solution cannot.

High-quality audio, via operational public address solutions, can keep everyone informed during an emergency with live or pre-recorded messages. If the situation is fluid, security teams can quickly alter the message. They can even use individual zoning to customize messages to specific areas. Once all students are out of the building, public address messages via IP speakers can provide updates.

How and where on a campus can audio be used as part of an ECS?

  • In a campus classroom or lecture hall, intercoms can be used for room-to-room communication. While a class is in session, intercoms can help teachers to communicate with staff in another room or area.
  • In campus buildings, intercoms and speakers can provide critical information to professors and students during emergency situations.
  • Throughout the campus grounds and in sports stadiums and entertainment halls, speakers and horns can notify everyone with general or emergency messages.
  • Along the campus perimeter, speakers allow staff to trigger warning messages or issue live instructions if needed. Integrated with a VMS, cameras and speakers can be positioned together and allow staff to intervene while staying at a safe distance.
  • Intercoms placed in high-visibility enclosures throughout a campus provide a known location for someone to receive assistance.

Practice Makes Perfect
Once audio is incorporated into your ECS, it’s important that the system be tested to discover any potential vulnerabilities before a true emergency occurs. An effective strategy is to fully participate in your campus fire, lockdown, tornado, and earthquake drills.

One idea is to first test the ECS with a small portion of your audience that is representative of your total audience (such as different departments, campus buildings, or students in different areas) that will allow you to see the system in action on a realistic level. In addition, your security team may want to let the small group know in advance that it’s a test and not a real situation. This may allow the test group to provide realistic feedback of what happened so that you can correct any notifications or settings. Once the small group test is clean, expand the group to your entire campus population.

Some of the elements that you should test include:

  • Ensuring that the audio is clearly heard and understood.
  • Making sure retries are working and the right intervals are used between notifications.
  • Ensuring language-specific messages are being sent, if applicable.
  • Ensuring that different messages were received and clearly heard and understood within different zones, if you have it set up in that manner.

You also want to confirm who has access to the ECS and that they know how to use all elements of it during an emergency. Make sure that your speakers and intercoms are working, and most importantly, that the message is clear, concise, and can be understood.

Another factor to consider is the ability of your ECS to effectively handle the high volume of traffic that an emergency situation generates. You will want to know not just how the message is sent, but also if everyone in every area of your campus has clearly heard and understood the message.

It's also important to work with a provider that offers extensive customer support and regular training. That manufacturer will help you maintain the system in working order and can help employees gain more familiarity with how to correctly use it.

When it comes to an emergency communications system, there are two important elements. First is that it should always include high-quality audio that delivers clear messages every time that can be understood in any environment. The second is that it should be tested on a consistent basis to ensure that it’s always working correctly. Overall, practice always makes perfect with an emergency communications system.

This article originally appeared in the November / December 2022 issue of Campus Security Today.


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