Mass Notification Makes Moves to Manage Critical Events
In addition to planning messages, campus leaders can also plan and upload resources into their mass notification system to help aid people during a crisis...Assets like safety checklists, floor plans, diagrams, images, and other helpful resources can all be uploaded and then accessed remotely via a computer or mobile device.
- By Paul Shain
- March 22, 2022
Communicating a message so everyone on campus receives it is a challenge in and of itself. When that message contains urgent safety information, minor annoyances can become major headaches that put people at risk. Those issues multiply when an emergency occurs and campus leaders need to send multiple messages to different groups of people. All too often, people end up missing a message, or an important step gets missed because of overly complex processes.
Many campuses are realizing that it’s not enough to just get a message out at the onset of an incident. The mass notification solution they implemented five or ten years ago may not adequately reach every area of campus or may not be able to handle the complexities modern emergencies demand. However, as the needs of campuses evolve, so does the technology that addresses those needs. Mass notification systems are no exception.
Most campuses have plans in place to help them manage an emergency when it occurs. However, those plans often exist in a three-ring binder in someone’s desk or on a shelf in an office. They aren’t easily accessible to everyone and are rarely set up to be used at a pace that keeps up with the rate at which an event unfolds.
So, the question becomes not just how can a campus reach everyone as quickly as possible when an event occurs, but how can a campus successfully manage an emergency from start to finish? For many campuses, the answer has been to add solutions that address gaps in their emergency response plans, of which mass notification is an important component. However, having more tools means spending more time managing and activating them—time which campuses can’t afford to lose during a crisis. The more tools in place also increases the chance that someone might miss a step while jumping from one tool to another. That’s why mass notification systems are looking to offer a more complete solution that campuses can leverage to manage emergency events.
While efficient, effective alerting is still at the core of what mass notification systems can offer campuses. New feature sets make it possible to provide a more robust response to handle complex situations as they unfold. This begins with planning. Campuses need to identify what situations may cause the most disruption or put people at greatest risk. Once that list has been created, campus leaders can begin outlining what tasks need to be done and who needs to perform them. The security team will likely have different tasks than faculty and administrative staff. Understanding each person’s role will help build a more effective emergency response plan, and with a mass notification system, those tasks can be easily assigned and automated.
Text and audio messages can be created ahead of time once scenarios are identified. Using text and audio that is sent to a wide range of devices—including classroom and office phones, speakers, digital signage, desktop computers, and mobile devices—makes it much more likely that everyone will receive a message. Messages can be customized to be sent throughout an entire campus or to specific groups. This customization means the right people will receive the right information without a delay. Messages can be created for every stage of an incident and grouped together so at the onset of an incident, all an administrator needs to do is follow the preestablished message templates and launch them as each step of an incident is reached. This includes initial alerts, follow-up messages with further details, and “all clear” notifications to let people know normal campus operations have resumed.
In addition to planning messages, campus leaders can also plan and upload resources into their mass notification system to help aid people during a crisis. This is where an emergency response plan can become more actionable by making it accessible to whoever needs it, whenever they need it. Assets like safety checklists, floor plans, diagrams, images, and other helpful resources can all be uploaded and then accessed remotely via a computer or mobile device. This provides greater flexibility for deploying a response and shortening response times, since people are able to access what they need quickly.
Campus leaders can also consider how alerts will be initiated. Mass notification systems have long been used because of their ability to integrate with existing technology on campus to trigger and receive critical alerts. Manual triggers like panic buttons, mobile apps, dial codes, and more can make activation a one-touch process. Automated triggers like monitored RSS and CAP feeds, gunshot detectors, contact closures, and other Internet-of-Things devices can make the process even faster. The goal should be to make it as simple as possible to trigger an alert so no time is wasted when someone notices an incident occurring.
It also means putting the power of triggering alerts into the hands of people who need help as soon as they need it. Tools like panic buttons (available on mobile apps) allow students and staff to request assistance quickly and easily. This provides a direct connection to the security team, who can track the location of the person requesting help on campus and provide follow-up instructions on what they should do while they wait for help to arrive.
As an incident unfolds, being able to assess what is happening and who needs help offers a crucial advantage. Mass notification systems are helping tackle this need in two ways. The first is through expanded integrations with virtual collaboration tools like Webex, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack. While conference calls have been an effective way to gather key stakeholders who may be in separate locations, these new integrations provide useful video collaboration that allows people to share screens and check in on various areas around a campus. At the same time notifications are delivered, specific messages are sent to preselected safety team members with a link to join a virtual space. This allows for easy sharing of information and resources to determine the best course of action for responding to an event.
Second, notifications can be sent directly to recipients asking for response. For example, if a building needs to be evacuated on campus, a notification can ask if the recipient has left the building. Responses are reported in real-time so administrators can determine if anyone still needs help getting out.
When an event has concluded, all the data points from an event can be compiled into a report that campus leaders can then analyze to assess how well they responded to an incident. This helps identify potential problem areas that need to be corrected, as well as the areas that are most effective. This information can then be used to inform future decisions and amend existing protocols to make them useful.
The biggest advantage is that it allows campuses to consolidate safety procedures and tools into a single pane of glass. Every component can be accessed, activated, and analyzed from one solution. This helps simplify training and helps reduce confusion by giving users fewer tools to remember how to use during stressful situations. It can also help reduce costs by eliminating redundant systems and adding more value to existing investments by leveraging them for safety.
Campuses and the threats they face will continue to evolve. Investing in technology now that can grow along with the needs of campuses will help set campuses up for success in the future. With a single solution to manage any situation they may face, from an active shooter to severe weather to IT outages, campuses can streamline processes and procedures.
This article originally appeared in the March / April 2022 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.