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How to Select The Best Mass Notification System for Your Campus
Although some college campuses
have long benefited
from mass notification systems,
the current evolving
threat environment facing our
education systems indicate just how crucial it
is for all schools to have the technologies and
communications infrastructure to inform and
protect students, families, faculty and staff.
Today’s university leadership must proactively
prepare for a myriad of threats, including
active shooters, severe weather, violent protests,
disease outbreaks, cyber breaches and
In all of these cases, the school must be
armed with technology to quickly and easily
communicate necessary information to prevent
loss of life and ensure the safety and
security of individuals. This article explores
seven mass notification system capabilities to
consider in evaluating the right solution for
IS THE SYSTEM A BEST FIT
FOR SIZE OF YOUR CAMPUS?
Campus size varies wildly across the country,
with smaller regional schools taking up only a
few acres to expansive national university systems,
including the U.S. Military and Air
Force academies that can sprawl to more than
15,000 acres. Your campus size will play a role
in the type of emergency system you select.
For larger institutions, you should be able to
segment your alerts by location: an alert that
is vital to one area of campus is less relevant to
those miles away.
Ensure that you can include specific location
information in your communication so
that people less familiar with your entire
geography can effectively take action. In
terms of hosting, you will want to explore
hybrid or SaaS solutions. Although your large
campus likely has an established IT team,
having at least some of your solution hosted
in the cloud will enable you to scale your
response system much more rapidly as you
adjust for size.
Universities with tens of thousands of students
and faculty should factor in a system
that allows for targeted notification capabilities
to prevent message fatigue. If all or large
segments of students, teachers and staff are
barraged with notifications on non-emergency
daily happenings, there is a greater chance
they might tune out notifications of a more
serious nature. The ability to hyper-target
users by geographic location and other filters
will help them avoid message fatigue.
Smaller campuses, on the other hand, are
less likely to create message fatigue, so consider
expanding your range of messages worthwhile
to your audience—class cancellations, building
closures or event updates. These schools will
definitely want to explore SaaS options, which
can help reduce Total Cost of Ownership
(TCO) by eliminating the need for expensive
hardware, staffing, maintenance, upgrades and
dedicated infrastructure typically associated
with premise-based options.
DOES THE SYSTEM HAVE
APPROPRIATE DATA SECURITY
According to Adam Benson, the deputy
executive director at the Digital Citizens
Alliance, “Higher education institutions
have deployed resources and talent to make
university communities safer, but highly
skilled and opportunistic cybercriminals
make it a challenge to protect large groups of
highly desirable digital targets.”
Indeed, the National Law Review reports
that the education sector was the most targeted
by ransomware, with 13 percent of all
higher ed institutions experiencing an attack
on their network in 2016.
As with any new technology purchase and
implementation, you must ensure that your
mass notification system can withstand that
barrage of malicious activity and has in place
appropriate data security and privacy. Securityrelated
functions and practices, including data
encryption both at-rest and in-transit, top-tier
data center provisions, recipient PIN code
entry, and other security features are musthaves
in a critical communications solution.
You should also research to ensure your
vendor offers near-100 percent uptime with
24/7/365 support across all platforms—desktop,
tablet and especially mobile—and that
the solution integrates with your current antivirus
and anti-malware software.
DOES YOUR MASS NOTIFICATION
PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS?
Speaking of integration, your mass notification system should also
seamlessly integrate with tools, databases and applications already in
place such as student and teacher directories, portals with class information
and student profiles, and other databases that hold valuable information
that can be used to ensure real-time and targeted notifications.
Anytime you add a new technology solution to your existing stack,
you must be careful to ensure it will work effectively with these systems—
whether they are new, legacy or custom-built—so that information
does end up siloed in a way that undermines the value EMNS can
deliver. Even the best implementation requires some time and resources,
so the last thing you want your IT team doing is wasting valuable
cycles learning new languages and reprogramming.
HAVE YOU THOUGHT THROUGH
YOUR NOTIFICATION MESSAGES?
Best-of-breed mass notification vendors will have trained teams with
years of experience in installing and optimizing these systems. As
important as the technology is, understanding your audience and what
types of messages you want to communicate is equally as important.
It is best practice to have separate sets of protocols for emergencies
and general day-to-day notifications: end users need to very quickly
and clearly distinguish between an event that could impact their safety
and one that simply provides updates on, say, changes to class schedules.
The former should be “intrusive in a good way,” in that they reach
the user in a manner that is impactful enough to inspire action. These
separate protocols should live within one holistic notification system,
though, so that there is no confusion between disparate channels.
During this message development and testing phase is when you’ll
work with your solutions provider to determine how to most effectively
engage with your audience and what other nuances should be
considered: language variety or barriers; regional dialects or sayings;
or preferred communication channels and technology will all impact
how you craft your notification strategy.
WHAT ARE THE GEO-TARGETING CAPABILITIES?
Educational institutions with highly distributed campuses are going to
find situations when alerts need to be directed to a specific area ranging
from a building, to the entire campus, or even multiple campuses worldwide,
to ensure only those recipients are notified.
Geo-targeting is often used by emergency response or law enforcement
organizations seeking to alert citizens in defined geographic
areas about various threats and incidents, but it is a capability that can
be leveraged by campuses as well—particularly those with students
and faculty spread across a large geographic area or multiple locations.
Through combining speed and relevancy, organizations can help
increase employee adoption rates and use of notification systems and
ultimately ensure that alerts effectively reach, inform and positively
impact your school.
ABILITY TO ASSIGN USERS CERTAIN
LEVELS OF SYSTEM ACCESSIBILITY
Although we read often about software and hardware breakdowns that
lead to cyber breaches or other negative outcomes, in reality human
beings are most often the weak point in the system. That’s not to say that
your IT team isn’t doing their job well, but today’s malicious users are
incredibly sophisticated when it comes to influencing human behavior,
and most of the time their targets aren’t even the technical employees,
but other individuals who might have access and can be exploited.
To maintain the integrity of your mass notification solution - as well
as the larger integrity of your entire IT system - you should be able to
assign users different levels of system accessibility, so only those with
the most technical expertise have full access to the mission-critical
parts of the system. For other users who may simply need to login to
send a daily message, that level of access should more restrictive. This
differentiation can help prevent cyber breaches, incorrect notifications
and false alarms.
DOES IT MEET REGULATORY/COMPLIANCE
REQUIREMENTS LIKE THE CLERY ACT?
The Clery Act is a consumer protection law that aims to provide transparency
around campus crime policy and statistics. When a crime covered
by the Clery Act occurs, campus officials are required to evaluate if
there is a serious or ongoing threat to the campus community to determine
if a timely warning needs to be issued to all staff and students.
In the event of an immediate, significant danger to the health or safety
campus community (e.g., weather, disease outbreak), campus officials
may issue an emergency notification. This notification can include the
entire campus, or be limited to a specific area deemed to be at risk.
For campus officials, understanding what qualifies under the Clery
Act is crucial, and your mass notification provider must be able to offer
sound guidance to help ensure your team is in lock-step with Act
It’s time to ensure your campus is ready for anything
Researching and demoing new technology solutions can be time consuming,
selling the idea to school officials who control the budget can
be difficult, and securing buy-in from IT staff for implementation can
take some cajoling. At the end of the day, though, the well-being of
students, faculty and parents is simply far too
important to delay starting the process of selecting a
mass notification system. The best solutions are
already saving lives—can you afford to wait?
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.
Daniel Graff-Radford is the Chief Product Officer at OnSolve.