How to Select the Right Emergency Notification System for Your Campus
Five Characteristics of an Effective School Notification and Communication Solution
- By Dean Olds
- July 27, 2022
The daily news regularly reminds us that safety incidents have risen dramatically across all aspects of our community, and that’s one reason that recruitment and retention of teachers has been a challenge. Headlines tell us that teachers are being attacked or threatened at school—by both students and parents—and leaving after one year of service or retiring early.
While the news often focuses on the extreme safety incidents in schools—such as active shooters, neighborhood threats, and others—CENTEGIX’s experience providing incident response for schools tells us that everyday safety incidents like medical and behavioral situations are rising dramatically. In our Fall 2021 School Safety Trends Report, we provided an analysis of the trends in the data from our CrisisAlert platform, which was used over 25,000 times in the fall of 2021. We saw dramatic year-over-year increases in student behavior incidents (up 250%); medical incidents (up 130%); safety incidents per school increased 150%; the number of staff requesting help increased 100%; and staff called for help 22% more often.
Empowering staff to get help when they need it—whether for a behavior situation, medical issue, physical alteration or a campus-wide threat—is key to enabling staff to feel safe and protected. That way, they can focus on teaching the learning moments that matter in the classroom.
Guy Grace, Chairman of Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS), has 35 years of experience as a Director of Security and Emergency Planning. “I have said for many years that safe schools empower the teachers to teach, the students to learn and the community to be more productive not worrying about their loved ones learning and working in the schools,” Grace said.
Increasingly, school districts are turning to new emergency response solutions to protect their staff. And, as technology innovates, so do the options schools have to best protect students and staff. How do school systems evaluate and choose the most effective emergency notification solutions?
Knowing the gaps in traditional systems (wall-mounted panic buttons, mobile phone applications) helps define the characteristics of an optimal school emergency response system. Systems that will best secure the safety and wellbeing of students and staff should meet the following five criteria:
1. Address All Types of Emergencies, Daily Incidents, and Crises
School leaders and communities tend to think first about how best to prevent and respond to tragic school shootings, but school shootings remain statistically rare. Only 0.00008 percent of K–12 schools have had a mass shooting incident in the past 30 years.
But schools do face a variety of health and safety incidents every day. Accidental injuries, fights, weather incidents, and fires are more common events that require unique, rapid responses to keep students and staff safe—and sometimes save lives.
Schools reported 1.4 million crimes in 2015–2016 (the most recent year of data), with 79 percent of schools recording at least one crime incident. This included 449,000 crimes reported to the police.
In that same year, 10 percent of teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student. And in 2017, 4 percent of students ages 12–18 reported that they had feared attack or harm at school during the year.
Injury incidents also occur frequently. According to the CDC, more than 200,000 students under the age of 14 are treated in the hospital for playground injuries each year. High-school athletes alone account for an estimated 2 million injuries, as well as 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year. And according to the National Institute of Health, 68 percent of school nurses manage life-threatening emergencies.
A complete, effective emergency notification solution must address all of these school safety incidents, as well as provide the greatest protection and response in a worst-case active shooter situation. Some scenarios for administrators to consider:
- Would this emergency notification solution let staff quickly respond to a student medical emergency or a fight on the playground?
- Would it enable the front-desk personnel to request help without escalating a situation with an irate non-guardian demanding to see their child?
- Would it enable swift response if a domestic dispute erupts in the parking lot during a student pickup?
Schools also can gather real crisis scenario examples from teachers and staff to ensure that their emergency notification solutions will address all incidents they will likely face. Given limited funding, this helps schools to prioritize their investments to cover and be able to respond to the most likely incidents.
2. Make It Available to Everyone, Everywhere
An emergency notification system can only save lives if it is available. Staff must be able to request help or initiate a lockdown from anywhere on campus, whether it’s the classroom, the playground, the parking lot, or the stadium. As the Center for Homeland Defense and Security has reported, nearly half of school shooting incidents occurred outside the school building. Accidents, injuries, fights, and other response events occur in all corners of the school grounds.
This best practice of “anyone, anytime, anywhere” was cited in 2013 after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and repeated in the MSDHS Safety Commission’s report following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. To maximize accessibility and coverage, every teacher and staff member should wear a mobile panic button (such as a badge) at all times and be able to trigger a response or a lockdown without depending on WiFi or a cellular connection.
3. Be Simple and Fast to Use
Every second saved in an emergency—whether in requesting help or providing critical information to responders—improves the chances for a positive outcome. An analysis of 41 school shootings between 2008 and 2017 by the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center found that two-thirds of attacks lasted less than 2 minutes. Nearly half were over in less than 60 seconds.
Time is also critical when responding to an altercation, injury, or medical incident. For example, the American Heart Association cites research showing that survival rates for cardiac arrest patients fall 7 percent to 10 percent for every untreated minute.
An alert system should require very few steps for any staff member to request help. One-touch activation by clicking a single button on a body-worn device is simpler and faster than retrieving a phone from a drawer or pocket, turning it on, authenticating, and launching an app—especially under duress. Those seconds are precious when a safety incident or threat unfolds.
4. Quickly Communicate Precise Information
Technology can automate the rapid sharing of information critical to responders and everyone affected. For a teacher in the panic of an emergency, verbally relaying even basic information such as name and location can be difficult. Alert devices and apps should be assigned to specific users, identifying them automatically when they request help.
Notification solutions should also be able to pinpoint and communicate the exact location during an emergency. This is an area where technology innovation significantly advances the capabilities of school alert and notification solutions. GPS solutions are not able to identify locations to the exact room. Advanced private security networks can communicate the exact floor and room information without reliance on WiFi or cellular coverage, directing responders to react quickly and precisely.
5. Communicate Clearly to the Entire School Community
Schools have many ways to show and broadcast critical information to everyone who needs it during an emergency. Solutions should reach the eyes and ears of the most people possible, quickly and reliably.
Intercom announcements often inform and direct people during these types of events. Automated, pre-recorded announcements specific to each type of incident ensure a clear, complete, and concise message. They also eliminate potential confusion or delays of a manual message, particularly if administrators are not able to get to the intercom.
Interior and exterior strobe lights can alert people on playgrounds, in restrooms, or arriving to campus that an incident is underway. Instructional messages displayed on computers and phones can also be extremely beneficial to those on campus not well versed in protocols (substitute teachers, volunteers, visitors) who require more complete information.
Administrators often receive incident information from local authorities when they are away from campus, so they must be able to initiate communications and proper responses to incidents remotely. Systems also should link directly to local police, paramedics, EMTs, and other certified first responders. The key is maximizing awareness and information to all those affected.
School emergency alert systems can get crucial help to the scene quickly, no matter the nature of the safety event. We recommend that school systems:
- Assess and prioritize the most likely risks and threats in your schools.
- Create a blueprint for what an emergency alert and communications system must do to best address those threats.
- Consider the capabilities and limitations of the many solutions available and map their capabilities to your school system’s priorities and requirements.
- Seek a solution that is fast, ready, and available anytime, anywhere in or outside of the school building.
- Assess tools your schools already have (such as radio systems) and how they can complement a more complete response solution.
- Confirm that your plan and systems will inform students, administrators, parents, teachers, and emergency responders quickly in every possible way during any type of school safety situation.
This article originally appeared in the July / August 2022 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.