Using Mass Notification to Keep Students and Staff Safe Throughout the Year

Effectively implement a mass notification system on your campus

College and university campuses pose a number of challenges when trying to communicate safety information during an emergency. A mass notification system can help, but it can be difficult to know how to effectively implement one throughout a campus. You need to leverage the right tools and practices that keep the right people informed at the right time.

This doesn’t happen all at once, and it should never be something that’s done once and then left alone. Safety requires continuous adaptations to respond to the needs of your campus.

Here are 10 tasks college and university campuses can accomplish throughout the course of the school year, to help enhance safety and communication with the help of a mass notification system.

August: Clear Communication

A new school year brings new opportunities to improve processes and procedures for emergency communications. During a crisis situation, communications can quickly become muddled. Conflicting reports from social media, news outlets, and college or university officials can lead to unnecessary confusion and fear among students and staff. While the Clery Act dictates that all higher education institutions in the U.S. must have a mass notification system, August is a good time for finalizing your templates and testing your system before most students and staff arrive back on campus. A mass notification system that notifies an entire campus during an emergency with clear, easy to understand instructions will help keep everyone safe.

September: Delivering Communications to Classrooms

While mobile devices may seem like the most direct way to communicate, having a way to reach people inside classrooms is a must. Students may not be allowed to access mobile devices during a class, older buildings may have poor reception, and professors may be too focused on their instruction to notice alerts on a mobile device.

This could mean no one receives an update about an emergency situation leading to unneeded stress and unnecessary risk. That’s why it is important to utilize communication channels beyond mobile calls or SMS text messages to reach people on campus with updated information. IP phones, overhead paging and IP speaker systems, digital signage, and desktop computer alerts sent from a mass notification system can all provide intrusive messages that grab people’s attention and make them aware of situations outside the classroom.

October: Mobile Matters

Of course, mobile is an important component of any mass notification plan. A campus population is inherently mobile, so you need to be able to reach them wherever they are. A mass notification system should include mobile capabilities like an app to launch messages remotely, and messages that can be sent in mobile-friendly formats like apps, SMS text and email. Recipients should be able to reply to messages on their mobile devices to let dispatchers know if they are safe or need assistance. Combining mobile features with on-premises devices will give your campus the best opportunity to reach everyone during an emergency.

November: Reaching People on Desktops

In addition to mobile devices, desktop computers and laptops are ubiquitous on campuses. Leveraging desktop alerts with help from a mass notification system can provide visual and audio elements for emergency messages.

Consider the best format for displaying messages. Pop-up messages appear over whatever application a user is currently in and can be the most effective method for getting someone’s attention. Scrolling messages are less intrusive while still delivering effective communications. Toast and tray notifications may be appropriate in labs where work is mission critical and cannot be interrupted. Whatever format you choose, customize font, size, color and logos to make it clear who the message is coming from and what the recipient should do. Of course, streaming audio is the best choice for emergencies because of its intrusive nature.

December: Prepare for Winter Break

As the semester comes to a close, campuses often become quieter as students return home for winter break. With a limited number of students, faculty and staff on campus during this time, it may not make sense to have the same emergency notification plan as the rest of the year. Understanding who is on campus and what kind of situations can occur during this time help keep those that remain on campus, or return early for sporting events or a winter term, safe and informed.

January: Build Your Mass Notification Ecosystem

As the new year begins, you want to make sure all of your devices and systems can connect to one another to aide the notification process. This can become your mass notification ecosystem. Too often campuses waste time logging into different systems or activating different devices during an emergency. This is hardly efficient, especially when a large number of people need to be notified.

Desk phones, desktop computers, digital signage, IP speakers, overhead paging systems and mobile devices can all contribute to your ecosystem and help increase the reach of your messages. Spreading information should leverage as many devices as possible. More devices means a greater variety of message types that can be employed, increasing the chances that everyone receives the messages.

Other ecosystem opportunities include automated early warnings for earthquakes, severe weather and gunshot detection.

February: Understanding Social Media’s Role

Through social media, everyone is empowered to become a source for information. While this can help spread the word at the onset of an emergency, it can also hinder the response to an ongoing incident by adding confusing and incorrect information into the conversation.

Since many people’s first instinct is to check social media, organizations need to create trustworthy channels that are updated regularly. Our experience is that Twitter is most helpful for providing accurate updates to ongoing situations. This can help keep personnel informed and updated regularly, but also serves as a source for parents and the media who can recognize it as an official channel to receive information.

March/April: Prepare for Severe Weather

Severe weather is always a concern. To protect students and staff, you need to develop efficient methods for monitoring potential weather events, and getting the word out to protect people when threatening weather approaches. Different parts of the country face different weather threats, but with a mass notification system that monitors a CAP feed from the National Weather Service, campuses can track alerts that are relevant for their geographical area. These messages can then automatically trigger mass notifications to specific groups that can then manage the situation.

Messages can provide people with a location they should go to when severe weather approaches. Taking action and getting to a safe location can mean the difference between escaping harm, injury or death. Consider what the hazard is and how that impacts where your people should go. Should they shelter in place (tornado) or evacuate (hurricane)? Go low (tornado) or go high (tsunami or flash flood)? Answering these questions in advance and including them in a mass notification can help save time and get people to safety quickly.

May: Keep Graduation Visitors Safe

As the school year winds down, colleges and universities need to prepare for the influx of visitors that come during graduation celebrations. While students will be familiar with mass notification procedures and are likely connected to systems that send alerts, visitors do not have that luxury. If an emergency occurs during graduation weekend, campuses need to have the tools in place to assist visitors.

An easy way to keep people informed is by reaching them on their mobile devices. Certain mass notification systems will allow visitors to opt-in to receive emergency notifications. Using mobile phones, they can text a number with a simple message to begin receiving emergency notifications via SMS text messages. Visitors can also register via a web browser. When sending communications to students and families about graduation, include instructions for how they can register to receive emergency notification and post signs around campus during graduation weekend with similar information.

June/July: Regular Testing Ensure Effectiveness

With the school year finished and new one set to begin, now is the perfect time to test everything you’ve set up over the course of the year. Mass notification systems have many moving parts that need to be in sync. Since these solutions can connect to multiple devices, it’s important that messages get sent to the right places, at the right volume, and in the right format. With fewer people on campus, you can safely conduct testing without worrying that people will mistake the test for a real situation. It’s also a good time to test your incident response with different departments and even external organizations using collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex Teams.

This is just an outline of the mass notification projects a campus can accomplish over the course of a year. Depending on your campus and resources, there may be other projects to tackle. You can also rearrange or combine projects in this list as you see fit. Assess the mass notification needs of your campus and begin building a plan that will keep students, faculty, staff and visitors safe throughout the year.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Campus Security Today.


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