Using Mass Notification to Keep Students and Staff Safe Throughout the Year
Effectively implement a mass notification system on your campus
- By Pat Scheckel
- August 01, 2019
College and university campuses pose a number of challenges
when trying to communicate safety information during an
emergency. A mass notification system can help, but it can be
difficult to know how to effectively implement one throughout
a campus. You need to leverage the right tools and practices
that keep the right people informed at the right time.
This doesn’t happen all at once, and it should never be something
that’s done once and then left alone. Safety requires continuous adaptations
to respond to the needs of your campus.
Here are 10 tasks college and university campuses can accomplish
throughout the course of the school year, to help enhance safety and
communication with the help of a mass notification system.
August: Clear Communication
A new school year brings new opportunities to improve processes and
procedures for emergency communications. During a crisis situation,
communications can quickly become muddled. Conflicting reports
from social media, news outlets, and college or university officials can
lead to unnecessary confusion and fear among students and staff.
While the Clery Act dictates that all higher education institutions in
the U.S. must have a mass notification system, August is a good time
for finalizing your templates and testing your system before most students
and staff arrive back on campus. A mass notification system that
notifies an entire campus during an emergency with clear, easy to
understand instructions will help keep everyone safe.
September: Delivering Communications to Classrooms
While mobile devices may seem like the most direct way to communicate,
having a way to reach people inside classrooms is a must.
Students may not be allowed to access mobile devices during a class,
older buildings may have poor reception, and professors may be too
focused on their instruction to notice alerts on a mobile device.
This could mean no one receives an update about an emergency
situation leading to unneeded stress and unnecessary risk. That’s why
it is important to utilize communication channels beyond mobile
calls or SMS text messages to reach people on campus with updated
information. IP phones, overhead paging and IP speaker systems,
digital signage, and desktop computer alerts sent from a mass notification
system can all provide intrusive messages that grab people’s
attention and make them aware of situations outside the classroom.
October: Mobile Matters
Of course, mobile is an important component of any mass notification
plan. A campus population is inherently mobile, so you need to
be able to reach them wherever they are. A mass notification system
should include mobile capabilities like an app to launch messages
remotely, and messages that can be sent in mobile-friendly formats
like apps, SMS text and email. Recipients should be able to reply to
messages on their mobile devices to let dispatchers know if they are
safe or need assistance. Combining mobile features with on-premises
devices will give your campus the best opportunity to reach everyone
during an emergency.
November: Reaching People on Desktops
In addition to mobile devices, desktop computers and laptops are
ubiquitous on campuses. Leveraging desktop alerts with help from a
mass notification system can provide visual and audio elements for
Consider the best format for displaying messages. Pop-up messages
appear over whatever application a user is currently in and can
be the most effective method for getting someone’s attention. Scrolling
messages are less intrusive while still delivering effective communications.
Toast and tray notifications may be appropriate in labs
where work is mission critical and cannot be interrupted. Whatever
format you choose, customize font, size, color and logos to make it
clear who the message is coming from and what the recipient should
do. Of course, streaming audio is the best choice for emergencies
because of its intrusive nature.
December: Prepare for Winter Break
As the semester comes to a close, campuses often become quieter as
students return home for winter break. With a limited number of
students, faculty and staff on campus during this time, it may not
make sense to have the same emergency notification plan as the rest
of the year. Understanding who is on campus and what kind of situations
can occur during this time help keep those that remain on
campus, or return early for sporting events or a winter term, safe
January: Build Your Mass Notification Ecosystem
As the new year begins, you want to make sure all of your devices and
systems can connect to one another to aide the notification process.
This can become your mass notification ecosystem. Too often campuses
waste time logging into different systems or activating different
devices during an emergency. This is hardly efficient, especially when
a large number of people need to be notified.
Desk phones, desktop computers, digital signage, IP speakers, overhead
paging systems and mobile devices can all contribute to your ecosystem and help increase the reach of your messages. Spreading
information should leverage as many devices as possible. More devices
means a greater variety of message types that can be employed, increasing
the chances that everyone receives the messages.
Other ecosystem opportunities include automated early warnings
for earthquakes, severe weather and gunshot detection.
February: Understanding Social Media’s Role
Through social media, everyone is empowered to become a source for
information. While this can help spread the word at the onset of an
emergency, it can also hinder the response to an ongoing incident by
adding confusing and incorrect information into the conversation.
Since many people’s first instinct is to check social media, organizations
need to create trustworthy channels that are updated regularly.
Our experience is that Twitter is most helpful for providing
accurate updates to ongoing situations. This can help keep personnel
informed and updated regularly, but also serves as a source for parents
and the media who can recognize it as an official channel to
March/April: Prepare for Severe Weather
Severe weather is always a concern. To protect students and staff, you
need to develop efficient methods for monitoring potential weather
events, and getting the word out to protect people when threatening
weather approaches. Different parts of the country face different
weather threats, but with a mass notification system that monitors a
CAP feed from the National Weather Service, campuses can track
alerts that are relevant for their geographical area. These messages
can then automatically trigger mass notifications to specific groups
that can then manage the situation.
Messages can provide people with a location they should go to
when severe weather approaches. Taking action and getting to a safe
location can mean the difference between escaping harm, injury or
death. Consider what the hazard is and how that impacts where your
people should go. Should they shelter in place (tornado) or evacuate
(hurricane)? Go low (tornado) or go high (tsunami or flash flood)?
Answering these questions in advance and including them in a mass
notification can help save time and get people to safety quickly.
May: Keep Graduation Visitors Safe
As the school year winds down, colleges and universities need to
prepare for the influx of visitors that come during graduation celebrations.
While students will be familiar with mass notification
procedures and are likely connected to systems that send alerts,
visitors do not have that luxury. If an emergency occurs during
graduation weekend, campuses need to have the tools in place to
An easy way to keep people informed is by reaching them on their
mobile devices. Certain mass notification systems will allow visitors
to opt-in to receive emergency notifications. Using mobile phones,
they can text a number with a simple message to begin receiving
emergency notifications via SMS text messages. Visitors can also register
via a web browser. When sending communications to students
and families about graduation, include instructions for how they can
register to receive emergency notification and post signs around campus
during graduation weekend with similar information.
June/July: Regular Testing Ensure Effectiveness
With the school year finished and new one set to begin, now is the
perfect time to test everything you’ve set up over the course of the
year. Mass notification systems have many moving parts that need
to be in sync. Since these solutions can connect to multiple devices,
it’s important that messages get sent to the right places, at the right
volume, and in the right format. With fewer people on campus, you
can safely conduct testing without worrying that people will mistake
the test for a real situation. It’s also a good time to test your
incident response with different departments and even external
organizations using collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or
Cisco Webex Teams.
This is just an outline of the mass notification projects a campus can
accomplish over the course of a year. Depending on your campus and
resources, there may be other projects to tackle. You can also rearrange
or combine projects in this list as you see fit. Assess the mass notification
needs of your campus and begin building a plan that will keep
students, faculty, staff and visitors safe throughout the year.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.