Illustration: Ron Rennells
1. Conduct a risk analysis. "Understand what you are trying to solve or the risk you must mitigate," says Cooper Notification Vice President of Marketing Ted Millburn. "Based on the study, figure out, 'Do I solve the problem with a process or a technology?' Unless you do that, you are throwing either a technology solution or process solution at the last emergency that occurred on your campus."
2. Involve the IT department in your planning process, and develop buy-in with other on-campus stakeholders, including parking, facilities, athletics and administrators.
3. Share resources (funds, technology and personnel) with other departments on campus as well as off-campus agencies, such as county emergency management and local police. Will the systems you are considering work with outside agencies? Also consider less traditional sources of funding, such as endowments, financing and vendor price structuring.
4. Use a layered approach that incorporates several different technologies so that the strengths of each solution compensate for the weaknesses of the others. Be certain to account for the hearing and sight impaired.
5. Conduct site assessments for each technology being deployed. For example, with giant voice, test the technology to see how intelligible it is when it is used on campus. Consider the campus' geography. Will trees, buildings or hills block the sound? For SMS text solutions, does your campus have cell phone dead zones? Test the signal strength, and if it is weak, work with the cell carriers to see if they can improve it.
6. Determine ahead of time who has the authority to issue emergency alerts. Also develop the standard operating procedures concurrently with the purchase of the system.
7. Create clear, concise audible and written emergency messages ahead of time that can be edited on the fly. The messages should originate from a campus or district authority and should be vetted by the campus communications department.
8. Use and test the system often (but not too often). A reasonable amount of system usage, especially for campus-wide closures related to severe weather, encourages employees and students to sign up for the campus emergency alert SMS text system. It also helps educate them regarding campus emergency preparedness.
9. Develop various groups of first responders and decision makers (police, residence life, emergency management, facilities, etc.) who are designated to receive messages more frequently. That way, during an actual emergency when the system must reach everyone in the community, campus emergency notification system administrators have actually practiced deploying the solutions. "This helps to avoid what I like to call the 'big read button with dust on it' syndrome," says Rick Tiene, who is Cooper Notification's vice president of homeland security solutions. "It's generally the same people who also have to send out the tornado or active shooter alerts. They are just sending the messages to different [more] people."
10. Automate your SMS text alert database so that the system automatically adds and deletes cell numbers and E-mails appropriately. It is best to tie in student enrollment and human resource databases for this task.
11. Incorporate adequate logical security measures so that your campus' SMS text message database won't be hacked. Maintaining the database onsite and only providing a vendor with as much information as it needs could also help prevent a data breach.
12. Avoid spam filters by whitelisting. Campuses or their vendors can work with cell carriers and aggregators so their emergency messages aren't blocked.
13. Consolidate the activation process of all of your systems. Although it is a best practice to adopt several modes of mass notification, activating each separately can be time consuming. Many emergency alert vendors now offer solutions that can notify campus communities via text, E-mail, digital signage, Web site announcements, computer pop-ups and more simultaneously.
14. Educate the campus community on how the system is used and what to expect and do during an emergency. Campuses often do this via E-mail announcements, new student and staff orientation, Web site announcements, teacher/parent meetings, parent association meetings and more.