Why Any Well-Executed Campus Emergency Plan Must Leverage Public Address
- By Gina Sansivero
- July 27, 2022
The complexity and frequency of school safety threats has steadily increased over the last decade—and not only in the ways we’ve come to expect.
Unfortunately, the mind immediately goes toward the horrors of school tragedies–of which there were 549 incidents between 2013 and 2019, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. But that is hardly the only type of terrible event that could upend a school day at a moment’s notice, and not all threats occur inside the building.
Natural disasters have also been increasingly prominent, sending students to seek shelter with little to no warning. In 2021 alone, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the United States, second only to the record-setting weather events of 2020.
New threats to the safety and security of school campuses have been steadily emerging from both inside and outside the campus, with no signs of slowing down, and educational facilities have had to increasingly focus on the integrity of their emergency alert apparatus just to keep up. In particular, mass communication systems have become a key component of administrators’ life-safety plans.
Tapping into Security Budgets to Upgrade Outdated Systems
Most times, schools will have a public address system in place for relaying morning announcements, paging and triggering bells that signal the start and end of a classroom period, and a separate system for emergencies that uses a horn or siren, along with flashing lights, but not voice.
Those emergency alerts are not typically tied into the public address system, and maintaining that antiquated separation no longer meets the needs of today’s emergency preparedness. Being able to clearly and accurately hear instructions could make the difference between life and death, demonstrating the connection between critical emergency communications and the everyday public address system.
Unlike other areas of the school budget, security is never underfunded—and for good reason. Combining those two systems can also help facilities tap into their security budgets to fund critical upgrades that had previously been neglected.
Loudspeakers are often tucked into the ceilings and subsequently forgotten until the day they malfunction. The gradual decline in audio quality becomes almost imperceptible to those listening to announcements day after day, but as fidelity decreases, so does safety.
As dwindling school budgets push administrators to adjust their priorities, the sound they consider “good enough” ends up remaining the status quo. In moments of true emergency, however, “good enough” just won’t do.
Bridging the gap between public address and emergency alerts means those new components that seemed out of reach are affordable across every part of the campus.
Harnessing the IP Network for Expanded Setup and Control
Even with expanded budgets, the idea of completely overhauling antiquated public address systems is a daunting one. By investing in strategic hardware and software updates, IP endpoints provide a valuable starting point for upgrading and integrating public address and emergency alert systems.
There is no environment that should not be covered by a campus mass communication system—including walkways, locker rooms, restrooms, and outdoor athletic fields—and reaching those areas that may have previously been overlooked now becomes easier by adding IP endpoints to every classroom and public space.
Leveraging Voice over IP technology, the digital system (including head end hardware, software, phone interfaces, and IP endpoints) deftly combines PA, intercom, visual messaging and cues, and audio alerts using the existing IP infrastructure. Additionally, hardware (known as gateways) can distribute the signal to analog speakers, typically used for voice amplification and PA, allowing schools to maintain some existing and well-functioning components. This ensures all of the speakers within the system can communicate at the same time, with consistent messaging throughout the entire campus.
Once the system is set up—which an expert can do easily and cost-effectively—it becomes easy to upgrade in stages, future-proofing the mass communication system as the network or campus expands. A well-networked system that is easy to use also ensures that staff members can quickly and simply access the system, regardless of their level of proficiency, with fail-safes in place to compensate for human error in high-pressure situations.
The option to access controls from mobile devices allows personnel to readily operate systems remotely, ensuring that information continues to be shared when circumstances prevent staff from reaching the paging microphones and other equipment used to trigger an emergency alert.
At the same time, automation protocols provide assurance that life safety systems operate without disruption. During an emergency, automatic overrides clear the way for announcements to take precedence over whatever other communications may be going out at that moment. Broadcasting pre-recorded announcements eases some of the pressure in emergency situations, reducing the possibility for human error and speeding up potential response times by police, fire, and other authorities.
Integrating public address and safety into one mass communications system not only simplifies setup and networking, but also streamlines maintenance and inspections concerns. A mass communication system operates with greater frequency than a dedicated fire alarm system that only gets used in an emergency.
While the frequency of emergency systems testing is subject to legal requirements and regulations, they generally remain dormant until the time they are really and truly needed.
However, that’s not the case with a general-use public address system. Every time an announcement is made, it’s another chance to re-confirm the functionality of communications equipment on campus, giving administrators valuable peace of mind they'll be ready the next time disaster strikes.
Combining Sounds and Visuals Ensures Alerts Reach All
A fully robust emergency alert system takes into account how sound carries through the various indoor and outdoor environments that make up a modern campus. Integrating ambient noise sensors overcomes these limitations by constantly monitoring the background levels in a particular area and adjusting the volume of the speaker system accordingly for maximum intelligibility of announcements in every situation.
Sound is not the only factor in relaying critical life-safety announcements, however, and a holistic emergency alert system can also include visual displays and flashers to meet stringent ADA-compliance requirements for alerting those who are disabled or hearing-impaired.
The use of visual aids makes following instructions easier, especially when people are panicking and may not easily be able to comprehend spoken announcements. Wayfinding displays with colors or arrows are simple to follow, leading students and staff to emergency meeting locations, while short, simple messages in rolling text work in connection with digital signage, alarms and other sounds to create a system that is fully inclusive.
Expanding the Boundaries of the Modern Campus
The elements of a campus have changed considerably over time, with outdoor venues, mobile classrooms, remote learning and other environments expanding the requirements for communications systems.
The modern campus not only includes these new areas on the premises, but also extends to off-site locations. COVID-19 pushed educational facilities into unfamiliar territory as remote instruction and social distancing left administrators scrambling to design a viable system for learning at home. Even after the most stringent restrictions have eased, hybrid and flexible learning remains a key part of the learning experience.
An upgraded communications system that takes this expanded geography into account will deliver a consistency of messaging for students, faculty, and parents wherever they are. Mobile alerts have become a normal part of everyday life, and a campus emergency preparedness plan is no different. Whether alerting to the cancellation of a previously scheduled event, a building lockdown, an unexpected early dismissal or a pivot to remote learning, visual and audio prompts should be able to reach any computer or phone for real-time updates that affect the ever-growing campus community.
Educational facilities today have more considerations than before—an ever-evolving list of potential emergencies affecting a more diverse campus population across a wider geography and with more special needs. Public address and emergency alert systems need to do more. Investing in the right hardware and software to properly upgrade their capabilities gives administrators the flexibility and agility they need to adapt to these changing needs—and keep their communities safe, both now and in the future.
This article originally appeared in the July / August 2022 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.