Communicating Evacuation Plans

Campuses rely on notification systems as a critical means for emergency communications

A campus evacuation is one of the most challenging emergency situations a college or university may face. Coordinating efforts to ensure that people get the message to clear out of buildings without causing a panic can be a difficult goal to accomplish. Campuses are full of distractions, and chances are if you are a campus leader that determines an evacuation is necessary, you can’t afford to waste time making sure the message gets disseminated. Evacuation alerts need to get into front of the right audience immediately, so people take action.

A Critical Component

That’s why many campuses rely on mass notification systems as a critical component of their evacuation plans. Mass notifications offer an intrusive means to broadcast critical emergency communications like evacuation instructions via text and audio messages. Of course, carrying out an evacuation doesn’t just mean sending out an alert, it requires careful planning to guarantee everyone gets out of harm’s way.

Evacuation considerations should start by addressing who needs to be notified and how. The evacuation plan for an instruction hall is going to be different than the plan for a dormitory, theater building, stadium or library. It is important to bring together different departments who can advise on strategies and considerations that may not be immediately obvious. This can include facilities, campus safety, administration and other relevant teams who can provide valuable insight about where to direct people. They can also help determine what constitutes calling for an evacuation.

A fire may be the most obvious event where people need to vacate a building, but campuses need to consider other situations that may require people to seek safety outside. Situations like a chemical spill in a science lab, or a gas leak in a dorm may also require evacuating students, faculty and staff out of those buildings until it’s safe to return. Each of these situations may require different messaging, as people need to know that they should exit a building, but also that they need to wait for an “All Clear” message before they can return. Other situations like an active shooter may require different training and messaging as an evacuation can put people in the path of a shooter. If the shooter is contained to a specific area though, it may make sense to instruct people to leave.

Campuses will also need to decide how evacuation notifications will be triggered. Again, in these kind of situations, timing is critical. Triggering alerts needs to be easy so that the moment someone notices an incident they can begin informing others.

Too much time can be wasted waiting for the right person to get in front of a computer and remember their log in before alerts start going out. Mass notification systems offer a number of options to make this process simple. Physical panic buttons installed in classrooms and hallways can be connected to a mass notification system to begin distribution with a push of a button. For campuses that want an extra level of precaution to avoid false alarms, speed dials on desk phones can be configured to activate alerts when someone inputs the right code. In addition, designated staffcan be given permission via a smartphone app to trigger alerts. Providing multiple options for triggering helps ensure messages are delivered without delay.

An Evacuation Message

The next question to answer is how to share the evacuation messages that have been created. Given the severity of a situation that requires evacuation, campuses need to leverage every available channel to ensure no one misses a message. Mass notification systems offer the ability to connect with a wide range of devices which can be used to share simultaneous messages across a campus.

IP phones, IP speakers, desktop computers, digital signage, mobile devices and more can all use text, audio and images to communicate evacuation plans. This offers far better reach than simple mass texting solutions. If students are in a class that doesn’t permit them to use their phones, or are in a building that does not get good reception, campuses run the risk of certain students missing messages that impact their safety. Using mobile alerts in addition to notifications delivered to on-premises devices makes it much more likely that 100 percent of a campus population receives an evacuation notice in a timely manner.

Campus safety teams and administrators can also use mass notification to manage events after an evacuation alert has gone out. While an initial alert may be sent to a large group of people, subsequent messages can be sent to preconfigured groups who can best respond to the situation. One group, like instructors, may get instructions to help facilitate evacuation within their building by guiding students outside. The campus safety team would get a message to go to the building being evacuated to make sure everyone got out, and administrators would receive an invitation to join a conference call or virtual space to observe and assess the situation to provide additional help if there are further developments.

Getting People Out

Until that time, though, it’s important to not just get people out of buildings, but keep them out until it is safe to return. Mass notification can help by broadcasting messages to outdoor digital signage communicates that a building is closed until further notice. If a building needs to be kept clear for an extended period of time, mass notification systems connected to electronic door locks can provide additional assistance in keeping buildings secure until people are able to reenter them.

Mass notifications can then help resolve the evacuation event by delivering an “All Clear” message. This helps minimize further disruptions by helping normal operations resume quickly. Administrators can then assess their response to the event by examining analytics within their mass notification system to see how many people and devices received a message, and how quickly people exited buildings after received the initial alert. They can then make adjustments and improvements to be better prepared for the next event.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for handling evacuations, mass notification systems can take much of burden offof campus leaders by automating processes and distributing clear, concise instructions to everyone.

This article originally appeared in the January February 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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