Campus notification systems create the potential to save lives
- By Paul Hefty
- February 01, 2020
Information is key during a campus emergency. Injuries and
damages from events, such as active shooters, fires, chemical
spills and severe weather, can soar if a campus lacks a proper
emergency notification system (ENS). An ENS cannot eliminate
risk, but it can warn students and staff, providing them
with the up-to-the-minute information they need to best react to
dangerous situations. Emergency notification systems are a musthave
item for all campuses.
Simultaneously, alerting thousands of people takes a multi-faceted,
network-centric approach. Alerts may include text messaging, social
media posts and email, along with audio alerts from speakers
throughout the facilities. Newer software programs allow these messages
to be sent from almost any internet-connected device with the
use of encrypted credentials.
Consider these important features, which should be part of any
emergency notification system:
- Not only does the messaging need to be redundant, appearing on
multiple channels and platforms, the system itself must reside on
multiple servers in the case of a data center failure.
- The system must be scalable to accommodate growth, both in the
number of participants and physical growth of a facility.
- An ENS must have the ability to quickly and accurately update
contact information. There should be portals for students and staff
to easily update their data. And that data should be frequently
backed up and protected against cyberattacks.
There is no single system that can handle the emergency notification
needs of potentially tens of thousands of people on a campus,
spanning hundreds of acres. Before adding or updating an ENS, have
an experienced security professional conduct a thorough risk assessment.
It will help identify the strengths and weaknesses of any current
systems and help to focus spending on those areas where
improvement is most needed.
Fire systems. A campus’ fire alarm system can be used for much
more than smoke- and fire-related events. These systems are often
first in line for alerting people to emergency events using text messages,
email blasts, sirens, speakers and strobe lights. The area
served by a fire alarm system may encompass a single building or an
The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization,
has created more than 300 codes and standards, which are often
adopted by states, cities and campuses around the world. The NFPA
72 standard outlines codes for installation, maintenance and testing of fire alarm systems as well as addressing
requirements for emergency notification systems.
The system’s ability to broadcast voice
or text messages is vital. Why? Because it is
most people’s natural inclination to flee after
hearing a siren.
A good example was the 2018 shooting at
Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School
that left 14 students and three staff members
dead. The shooter had pulled the fire
alarm box to lure students out of the classrooms.
Within seconds a school staff member
initiated a code red lockdown. The contradictory
alarms led to mass confusion.
NFPA 72, adopted in 2019, now allows
emergency notification messages to supersede
all other alarms.
Speaker arrays. High-power speaker
arrays are a great way to share outdoor emergency
information on larger campuses. The
tower-mounted speakers can deliver intelligible
live and pre-recorded messages at distances
of up to a quarter of a mile or more,
depending upon topography. The speakers
can be mounted for omni-directional and
A few properly placed arrays may be
enough to cover even the largest campuses.
In addition to providing emergency instructions,
these speakers can be used for crowd
control at special events. The voice component
can also be used in conjunction with
sirens used to gain people’s attention.
Intercoms. Intercom-based emergency
stations are used primarily to gain assistance
during an emergency. Since they enable twoway
conversation, these stations are technically
considered emergency communications
systems. Station speakers are not a
match for a speaker array system, but they
can provide an additional source of emergency
instructions. People can report realtime
events directly to campus security,
shortening response times. Embedded cameras
provide additional views of an area to
help staff make better dispatch decisions.
Stations can be mounted directly to a
building, such as a dormitory, and are ideal
for use in parking garages, stairwells and
elevator bays. Embedded in a tower, they can
be placed virtually anywhere outdoors and
are easily recognized by a bright blue light
atop each unit.
They are easy to set up and connect to a
campus network using CAT-5e/6 cable,
which also enables them to draw power over
the Ethernet. Stations are on and available
24/7 and require no POTS lines, saving
monthly phone costs. Available smartphone
apps enable security staff to maintain access
to stations while on patrol.
Audio intercoms, already in place in many
campus buildings, provide information to
people who are indoors during an emergency.
Powered horns and speakers can be used
to extend an intercom’s range to include
entries, courtyards, playgrounds and other
Phone apps. The proliferation of smartphones
on campus led to the development of
hundreds of emergency apps, many developed
for a specific site with campus maps
and contact information. Campus administrators
may use the apps to contact people
with text, voice and email messages. They
can also be used to contact people prior to
arriving at the campus, alerting them to an
emergency and advising them to stay away
until the situation has been resolved. They
also are used to contact security during an
However, only people who have enrolled in
the system database and downloaded the app
can use the solution. This may eliminate many
students, employees and visitors. There are
some other potential downsides to the apps.
Weather, topography and the proximity of
cellular towers can affect signal quality.
Remote areas on some large campuses may
lack cellular coverage. Phones are of no use if
the battery is dead and they can also be difficult
to remove from a pocket, purse or
backpack if a person is fleeing an emergency.
Electronic signs. Electronic LED signs at
major pedestrian and vehicular entries can
warn people to stay away. Placing them at
strategic sites around campus is another
way of reaching people, particularly those
with hearing difficulties. Solar panels can
help power the signs even during a campus
Drones. Drones are most often thought of
for their ability to capture impressive aerial
video. However, emerging technology is taking
emergency notification systems to new
levels with the use of UAS (Unmanned Aerial
Systems) and UGV (Unmanned Ground
Aerial drones may provide emergency
responders with an overview of the situation
and assist them in dispatching UGVs into
potentially perilous situations without putting
additional people in danger.
Both aerial and ground drones can establish
bi-directional communications and provide
survival kits for people trapped by
events. Drones can act as mobile sirens and,
if equipped with speakers, may share voice
information over small areas at a time. Aerial
drones can hover over remote areas to provide
instant 4G mobile coverage so people
can receive smartphone text and voice messages.
But before investing in drones for
emergency notification purposes, be sure to
check on local regulations regarding their
use to ensure they will not interfere with
other public agency UAS units.
Notification services. Some larger college
and university campuses use private services
that alert top administrators to emergency
situations while they are off campus. The services
monitor tweets and news posts from
government agencies, media organizations
and other sources to identify situations that
may put administrators at risk.
Alerts may even include traffic reports,
flight delays and other nonemergency information.
Subjects are tracked via their smartphone’s
Other tips. Assign roles for campus staff
and then conduct regular drills to train
members on the proper use of the emergency
notification systems. Assign specific roles for
each person and have backups trained in
case a primary contact becomes unavailable.
Test all equipment often to ensure it will be
properly working when needed.
Work closely with local first responders
and media. Police officers, firefighters and
paramedics will handle an active situation
and care for any injuries. When regularly
updated, the media can help inform relatives,
friends and others of the need to stay
away from the campus until the emergency
There is no one system for all campus
emergency notification needs. But a wellplanned
and implemented notification system
using multiple communication methods
may reduce property damage, limit injuries
and prevent deaths during an emergency
This article originally appeared in the January / February 2020 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.