The Importance of Communication in Emergency Response Plans

The Importance of Communication in Emergency Response Plans

Crisis communications at the University of Calgary

Planning for everything that could possibly go wrong is second nature for members of the University of Calgary’s Risk portfolio, who are constantly tracking the worst-case scenario and developing strategies to prevent it. UCalgary is located in Alberta, Canada and with more than 30,000 students and 5,000 employees, emergency preparedness needs to be top of mind for Rae Ann Aldridge, Associate Vice President of Risk, who says preventing incidents is only the half of the job.

“Our health and safety approach is really proactive, and that allows us to keep many potential issues from ever developing,” Aldridge said. “The other side of being proactive is having a strong plan for the unavoidable, and emergency communication is central to that.”

Communication is built into all three levels of UCalgary’s clearly defined emergency response structure, which includes the First Response Team, Emergency Operations Group and Crisis Management Team. There’s also a Master Emergency Communication plan that was developed in partnership between Risk and University Relations.


With user-generated content and real-time information sharing, social media has increased our expectations for immediate information.

If the community is talking about an incident online, Aldridge says it is important for the university to contribute to the conversation early.

“Social media provides a lot of room for misinformation during a crisis,” Aldridge said. “We use Twitter to get the facts out as quickly as possible to as many people as possible.”

Crisis communication for UCalgary doesn’t begin and end with social media though—far from it.

In addition to the ability to email every active student and employee, UCalgary can also send information using the UC Emergency Alert desktop notification system. It sends pop-up notifications directly to university-managed computers and laptops—making students, faculty and staff instantly aware of an emergency situation and any important instructions.

Not plugged in? UCalgary is currently installing a mass-notification system in buildings across campus—the project is over 50 percent complete and will enable the fire alarm system to broadcast buildingspecific audio messages—prerecorded or customized.

“The mass-notification system is ideal for many crisis situations,” Aldridge said. “It’s not dependent on people being online or checking their email—if you are in the building you will get the message.”


UC Emergency Mobile delivers instant alerts and updates that can save lives and prevent injury during emergency situations. Students, faculty and staff with the app installed on their devices are among the first to find out about critical events on campus—notifications provide as much detail as possible about what is going on and how to stay safe.

UC Emergency Mobile was introduced to campus in spring 2015 and, as of October 2018, it was active on 13,732 mobile devices.

Bob Maber, Director of Emergency Management, worked closely with a number of stakeholders on and off campus to customize UC Emergency Mobile for UCalgary’s specific needs.

“Our priority is always emergency preparedness and making sure the app is ready to deliver information to our community during crisis is central to that,” Maber said.

Even with a strict mandate to reserve UC Emergency Mobile alerts for serious situations, they have been deployed on multiple occasions— during extreme weather events, with information about a smaller fire that resulted in a building closure and ahead of potentially disturbing emergency training exercises on campus.

“When there is a clear need to communicate to our community about unusual campus conditions and closures, we see an opportunity to use the app,” Maber said.

UC Emergency Mobile even played an important role during an Information Technology crisis in 2016, when 9,000 staff and faculty emails failed for several days. Because the app runs on a completely independent system and is equipped with various audience channels, the app was used to send messaging to isolated groups when other communication platforms are not available.

Three years after UC Emergency Mobile was first introduced to UCalgary students, faculty and staff, Emergency Management began rolling out additional modules that made the app a two-way communication tool for the first time.

“Once we felt that the primary functionality was operational, we started developing additional modules,” Maber said. “The new modules provide a platform for our community to transmit information to us, and that’s very valuable to safety and security on campus.”


Working or studying alone after hours can be unnerving, but with SoloSafe, users can check in so Campus Security knows where they are and when they plan to leave. If they haven’t checked out by the planned departure time, a Campus Security member will make contact by phone or in person to ensure everything is alright.

“It’s best to have someone who knows exactly where you are when you’re on campus alone,” Maber said. “The system allows for a trained individual to provide assistance if it’s required.”


With the touch of a button, you can connect to Campus Security or 911. If you contact 911 through the app, Campus Security is automatically notified of your call and—if you’ve enabled location services— your location, which is critical information when you’re calling from a 380-acre campus.

“The 911 dispatch protocol is to alert Campus Security when there’s a 911 call from campus,” Maber said. “Since they’re already on site, Campus Security usually reaches the incident location before municipal first responders arrive. Utilizing the app for contact can help get the quickest and most accurate response, even if you aren’t certain of your location.”

TipLine is another function of the HelpLine module and provides a fast and easy way to report safety or security concerns. “We want our community to feel comfortable reporting incidents,” Maber said. “The TipLine is an alternative method to communicate with Campus Security. The more options people have, the more likely they are to report—and that’s good for the safety of our students, faculty and staff.”


The SafeSpace module is a secure, third-party information service for people who have experienced sexual violence to record details and, if they choose, submit a report to UCalgary’s sexual violence support advocate.

“When we started looking at adding this module, we recognized that the user experience had to be very considered,” Maber said. “We relied on the experts on campus to offer their expertise in creating the appropriate tone and using inclusive, trauma-aware language.”

Emergency Management put the app through rigorous user acceptance testing to identify technical and experiential issues. The group of approximately 30 testers included people with wide-ranging backgrounds— from web pros, communication experts and student executives to social workers, community partners and individuals with lived experience.

“The input we got through user testing was tremendous,” Maber said. “This kind of thing is always a work in progress, but we address the feedback as we receive it and that means we’re always building a better product.”


There’s no doubt that all of UCalgary’s crisis communication tools combine to form a robust emergency communications strategy at the University of Calgary, but according to Aldridge, good crisis communication begins long before the crisis. In order to reach the right stakeholders with the right message when it counts, they need to learn information and proper process when the stakes are low. That’s one reason evacuation drills are scheduled annually for every building on campus—twice a year for student residence buildings.

“Evacuation drills provide an opportunity to talk about and practice the correct evacuation procedures for everyone including our 750 strong volunteer emergency wardens,” Aldridge said.

The Emergency Warden Program ensures that every floor in every university building has a trained volunteer who is familiar with emergency procedures and prepared to assist with an evacuation.

A steady stream of safety information, training and procedures is shared with students, faculty and staff throughout the year. Health and Safety News, a monthly email publication, goes out to employees and promotes training opportunities, reinforces procedures and informs readers about new safety and security initiatives. The Risk website provides a hub of safety, security and wellness information, where students, faculty and staff can find a variety of information including safety alerts, which are also emailed to the community when necessary.

UCalgary celebrates its strong health and safety culture annually during Safety and Wellness Week, when students, faculty and staff are invited to attend educational sessions on topics such as using bleed control and naloxone kits and the impacts of legal cannabis—last fall, the chief of Campus Security even hosted a live Q&A where the community could raise concerns and ask questions.

“When you’re facing a crisis on campus, having a knowledgeable and engaged community is a valuable thing,” Aldridge said. “Successful emergency communication is about more than sharing accurate and timely information, it’s about cultivating a population that is ready to listen and respond.”

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

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