Proactive Campus Emergency Communication

Proactive Campus Emergency Communication

School officials must develop proactive and strategic response plans

Emergencies occur in educational facilities across the country every day; defined as situations that can negatively and significantly impact students, families, officials and communities. In emergency situations, seconds count, so knowing how to immediately identify and respond effectively to any level of emergency is critical.


An emergency is any serious, unexpected, and often dangerous, situation requiring immediate action. Ask any campus official, school administrator or member of the maintenance staff what constitutes an emergency and responses will differ significantly. This is because what is an emergency for one group of individuals may not necessarily be an emergency for another.

Emergencies are relative to the responder of the emergency. For instance, a police officer would certainly consider an active shooter in a school setting an emergency, but would probably not consider a weather-related event or fight inside a school an emergency in the same manner that a school administrator would. Similarly, campus maintenance would have a completely different set of emergencies, potentially related to mechanical breakdowns, freezer temperatures or server rooms that would not be emergencies to law enforcement or the administrator. While these are all emergencies, they are on a sliding scale, based on the responder.

Emergencies of some type are inevitable and school officials must develop proactive and strategic response plans for all types of emergencies.


Fires, weather events and active shooters are the three most commonly recognized emergencies that schools face.

Fire. All schools plan extensively for fire emergencies with required monthly fire drills and mandated annual inspections of equipment. Students are well aware of actions to take in case of fire. Interestingly, it has been 60 years since any K-12 experienced a fatality due to fire, yet every facility has a fire alarm and every school conducts regular fire drills.

Weather Emergencies. Schools also regularly practice for weather emergencies. For instance, campuses in areas that experience tornados hold regular tornado drills and often test tornado sirens. Detailed plans are in place and practiced, even though tornadoes are only seasonal threat.

Active shooter. In contrast most schools have significantly fewer, less developed plans in place for active shooter events. Most school officials are working on this proactively, however preparedness and protection plans trail significantly behind those in place for fire or weather-related threats. Many schools practice only one active shooter drill per year and others have no alarm or warning system in place similar to the warnings for tornados or fires.


Less familiar emergencies can also represent danger for schools and require emergency plans. These could include geographical-related emergencies, non-traditional location emergencies and facility emergencies.

Geographical-based emergencies. Certain emergencies can arise based on where an educational facility is located and must be considered when developing emergency plans. For example, a school in Arizona may need an alarm for dust storms or haboobs, while this is unnecessary for a school in the Midwest. A school located near a prison or high-crime area may have different emergency needs than a campus in a rural area.

Non-traditional location emergencies. Any time education occurs beyond the traditional classroom, school leaders need plans for emergency situations that address the specific setting. For instance, is there a plan in place for children on field trips, including where students will regroup and who is responsible for what? Is there a plan for students studying in the campus quad if an emergency arises? Temporary events can also present emergency challenges. For example, during a graduation on the football field, what security is in place for an open venue with a large number of people and limited exit points? What is the preparedness plan to protect that area this venue?

Facility emergencies. Critical equipment within campus facilities also requires emergency back-up plans. If a server goes down for a week, can teachers still grade? If campus buildings lose heat or air, can students still attend? How is the school monitoring these critical systems?


When creating a plan for each emergency, ask these three questions: Who do I contact? How will I contact them? What do I say?

Who do I contact? When an emergency occurs, it’s important to contact those affected in a way that enables immediate response to those in need. Everyone in an emergency situation fits into one of three categories (the “three Rs”)

Responders. These are the individuals who are expected to rectify the situation. They are the first people who need to know about an emergency.

Reactors. These are people directly affected by the emergency. They are potentially required to help resolve issues.

Revisionists. These are people who need to know about the situation after the fact. (This may mean notification two minutes after Responders and Reactors or two days after the situation, if they aren’t directly impacted.)

When developing a plan for an emergency, leaders must consider what category groups of people fall into for each emergency. The category that individuals are listed within can change, based on the emergency.

It is imperative that leaders do not contact everyone (Responders, Reactors and Revisionists) at the same time. Emergency plans should always stage the information so responders are the first to arrive with clear access. For example, when parents are notified of an emergency, the natural response is to retrieve their children from the school, which creates a backlog of traffic, may necessitate crowd control and delays important response time.

How will I contact them? How the emergency notification is delivered is important. Emergency notifications may be audio, text, visual, or sound.

Always match the method of contact to the level of urgency required. For instance, an active shooter emergency requires a quick response, which means bypassing today’s overworked and understaffed 911 system altogether and contacting law enforcement by radio for immediate response. Conversely, a weather-related emergency may simply require a lesser response, such as video board signage.

Match the gravity of the situation to determine how quickly a response is needed. Remember, all categories of individuals (Responders, Reactors, Revisionists) do not need to be contacted the same way or at the same time, but officials do need a carefully considered, predetermined plan for contacting each group.

What do I say? Develop a well-planned strategy for what the emergency information must convey. Determine the relevant information to convey to the individuals in each category (Responders, Reactors, Revisionists) during each emergency. Avoid providing an “information dump”, as this will slow down response time. Ensure the information itself is conveyed in a standard format across all notifications. Emergency notifications should be pre-recorded or pre-written.

  • This ensures information is well thought-out, succinct and first responders know how the information will be presented, which saves time.
  • This eliminates false or misinformation. Inaccurate details or descriptions can delay appropriate response. NO information, which first responders are trained to work with, is better than incorrect information.
  • This allows for consistent training and drill. The human brain is trained to respond to triggers. That’s why the emergency broadcast system always uses the same alert tones and the same voice. The human brain hears the familiar sound and starts to fill in the blanks of what the emergency may be. Because the brain is already prepared to hear the emergency, the individual can get through the initial shock and start acclimating to the sense of emergency more quickly. The consistent sound makes the emergency situation more manageable, should it arise.


Research shows in an emergency such as a school shooting, ensuring that armed law enforcement is onsite immediately is the quickest way to end the situation. The quicker law enforcement enters the building, the better the outcome is going to be.

The best way to document and implement a plan for any school facility or campus is to work with the local law enforcement agency. As individuals who work within the system, they are aware of the strengths and potential pitfalls within their own local community’s response and can help educational facilities create plans best suited to each local situation. Simply establishing an emergency response plan is not enough. Educational facilities need to practice the plan regularly and re-evaluate the plan constantly. Law enforcement presents an excellent example of this. Police officers constantly train. In the same way, teachers, students and others with the potential of being involved in an emergency situation need to train.

It’s important to train correctly. Conducting an active shooter drill is beneficial, but bringing a law enforcement agency to participate in the drill elevates the training to a new level. This can also help determine how quickly officers can arrive and assist in identifying possible navigation challenges or choke points, should a true emergency occur. Regular training is particularly important for campuses with multiple facilities.


Advance emergency preparation is necessary. Identifying, communicating and facilitating immediate response in emergency situations begins by understanding possible emergencies, from the most common challenges to the less familiar potential threats. Thoroughly examine all aspects of the campus, including location, activities and events, when developing a comprehensive response plan. Consider the Responders, Reactionists and Revisionists for each situation and determine when and how these groups are contacted. Remember that the best response plan is only as strong as the consistent training and practice that supports it. Make safety and emergency training a regular priority to ensure that the right actions and clear communication become second nature for all involved.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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