Be Prepared

Be Prepared

Identifying the different types of emergencies safety teams must create a plan

One of the biggest challenges for any campus is providing a safe environment for students to live and learn. Safety teams need to contend with the size of a campus, the number of students they are responsible for and overcoming the distractions of regular ongoing activities.

A Safe and Secure Campus

Achieving a safe and secure campus for students is dependent on strong planning. Safety teams need to recognize the situations that may put students in danger, how they will communicate with students about an emergency, and how that emergency with be managed so students get the help they need and normal operations can resume. While this may seem like a daunting task, many campuses are finding success with help from a mass notification system.

One of the most difficult obstacles in creating a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan is identifying the different types of emergencies safety teams need to create plans for. While some situations, like fires and active shooters may seem obvious, different departments may have different concerns.

For example, facilities can be concerned about a pipe bursting during cold weather while the science labs want to be able to notify people if there has been a hazardous chemical spill. Each situation requires different messaging and even within those situations, the way messages are deployed may differ. The people and buildings within the immediate area of an incident may require different instruction than the message that gets sent to commuter students or those on the opposite end of campus. Bringing different groups together offers the best opportunity to get the full scope of threats that may impact students and begin creating plans to address each incident.

Mass notification systems often offer a wide range of flexibility when it comes to creating messages, groups and zones. Custom text can be created for each scenario alerting students to the kind of threat that is happening and what actions they should take to stay safe. Sequences can also be created to provide follow up information and “all clear” messages once an incident has been resolved.

The ability to designate groups and zones allows campus safety teams to target their messages to those students and areas directly impacted by an emergency without disrupting the rest of campus. Students can be grouped by their dorms, class schedules, whether or not they are staying on campus over winter or summer break, or any other relevant parameter. Zones can target particular areas, buildings and even wings or floors within a building. This way campus safety teams can alert those students in the most danger without causing a panic elsewhere around campus.

Delivering the Message

How those messages are delivered to students is another critical part of any emergency preparedness plan. Campus safety teams need to understand how they are going to allow notifications to be triggered and then what devices will receive those triggered messages.

Mass notifications offer multiple manual and automated methods for triggering alerts. Virtual or physical panic buttons, mobile apps, speed dials and keyboard shortcuts are just some of the ways campuses are activating mass notifications. Notifications can also automatically be triggered with monitored emails, RSS and CAP feeds. When the feeds meet a certain pre-determined criteria, mass notifications can be sent to the safety team or to all students depending on the severity of the situation. This is often used to receive warnings of approaching severe weather and other updates about potential dangers near campus.

Once those messages are triggered, they can be sent throughout campus. The effectiveness of a mass notification is often determined by two factors: speed and reach.

How fast a message can be sent to everyone on campus and how quickly they begin taking action sometimes means the difference between life and death. Mass notification systems offer a quick and easy way to send notifications out the moment someone notices an emergency taking place. The second part is about how well a campus can reach every one of its students with a mass notification. Many campuses think this is an easy fix, relying solely on mass SMS text messaging tools to send out alerts.

There are a number of reasons a student may not receive a text message. They could be taking a test and not have access to their phone or be in an older building on campus that doesn’t get good reception. If they don’t receive the message quickly, that impedes the time it takes for them to understand the situation and get out of harm’s way. That is why campuses need to leverage every channel available to get the word out. Desk phones, IP speakers, digital signage, desktop computers and mobile devices can all be used to share text, audio and visual messages that interrupt ongoing activities so people take action. The more methods used, the more likely it is that everyone receives a message in a timely manner.

Getting the Message Out

To get messages in front of students also requires gathering information like cell phone numbers and email addresses. Some of that data may already have been collected and can be easily loaded into a mass notification system via an active directory. Students may also have the opportunity to self-register using a QR code to lessen the workload for system administrators.

Campuses may also encounter unforeseen problems as they deploy a mass notification system, which is why testing a system at the onset, and at regular intervals afterwards is critical when trying to be adequately prepared. Sending out test notifications to onpremises and mobile devices will provide a good indication of how effective messages are reaching everyone on campus. Safety teams may uncover issues like buildings that have poor cell phone reception which prevents text messages from being received.

They may discover that speaker volume in certain buildings is not loud enough to be heard over other noise, or the speakers are missing in critical areas. Testing ahead of time ensures that any complication can be identified and fixed ahead of an actual disaster, so no one misses a message when it matters most.

Testing has the added benefit of establishing a reliable channel of communication for students to turn to during a crisis. In a world where news travels fast, it can be difficult for campus safety teams to keep up. Rumors on social media can often outpace factual information delivered from campus officials leading to confusion and possibly increasing the risk of harm for students. Mass notifications help campuses leverage an authoritative source of information that cuts through noise, so people know exactly what to do during a crisis.

While mass notification systems can help campuses establish a strong foundation for emergency preparedness, it is an ongoing process. The flexibility a mass notification system provides gives campuses the ability to adapt to new threats, integrate new technology, and continue to make student a safety a priority.

This article originally appeared in the May / June 2021 issue of Campus Security Today.


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