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Solutions to Your Common Emergency Notification Problems

Training, planning, policies, coordination with stakeholders ensure messages reach everyone.

Here are some of the more common emergency communication challenges faced by universities and hospitals, and the solutions that public safety practitioners say work for them.

Challenge: Determining When to Issue a Warning
Mass notification professionals generally agree that the best way to address this issue is to brainstorm about possible threats and disaster scenarios long before a situation develops. Campus stakeholders should then come to a consensus on how the campus will respond. It is best to include these possible threats — be they severe weather, hurricanes, active shooter incidents, earthquakes or Hazmat situations — in a campus emergency notification policy.

The next step is to determine what is the specific hazard facing the campus and its potential impact on the institution. Is there the potential for serious injury, death, significant damage to property or a major disruption to campus operations? How soon does the message need to be sent (seconds, hours or days)? Who needs to be alerted?

UCLA, for example, has defined 45 potential scenarios: 15 of them — such as those involving active shooters, Hazmat incidents with injury or evacuation and bomb threats with evacuation — don’t require confirmation. Another 30 require some type of confirmation.

“If we get a suspicious package today, we will send the police out to investigate,” says UCLA Emergency Preparedness Manager David Burns. “If they determine that it is suspicious, then they will notify the Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad. But this also depends on the package’s location and proximity to people. If it is in a parking lot surrounded by 200 feet of nothing, it is not considered an immediate risk.”

Related Article: 9 Mass Notification Best Practices.

How quickly a threat will impact the campus also plays a role in determining if an alert should be issued.

“One type of event that currently requires some discretion for notification is weather-related incidents,” says Dave Tindall, assistant vice president for technology services at Seattle Pacific University. “In the Pacific Northwest, we don’t experience tornados or hurricanes, but we do have an occasional winter snow storm that paralyses the city. The use of emergency notification has only been used occasionally for weather-related incidents. Most weather events are known in advance, and we tend to rely on E-mail notification as the primary communication vehicle.”

Florida State University (FSU) applies the same logic to hurricanes. That being said, FSU Emergency Management Coordinator David Bujak recommends campuses not be shy about issuing emergency notifications.

“I think some schools are afraid they are going to annoy people with their alerts,” he says. “If you are consistent in your policies and issuing alerts where there is a significant threat, then people are going to learn to appreciate them.”

University of Nebraska Safety Manager John Hauser agrees, saying, “I instruct the dispatchers: ‘When in doubt, call it out’ — depending on the situation.”

Challenge: Determining Which Alert Methods Are Appropriate
Bujak recommends that campuses take a nuanced approach to issuing alerts. In other words, don’t use all of your mass notification methods for every incident.

“I think a big failure for a lot of campuses is that they have an all-or-nothing approach,” he says. “What do you do for the gray areas?”

Bujak believes universities should look at the facts of each incident or situation to determine the methods of emergency notification that should be deployed.

“For example, we had a shooting on campus in January,” he explains. “Most people would say, ‘You sent out a warning, right?’ Well, when we received the call, it was immediately identified as an accident. Police officers were immediately on the scene to verify the incident had occurred, and they had the weapon and the suspect in custody. So the question becomes, ‘Is there an ongoing threat to campus?’ And the answer was ‘No.’ Do I need to send a warning? No. Is there a need to inform the community that something happened? Most definitely. In that case, we did a partial activation where we posted information to our Web sites, Twitter, RSS feeds and more passive modes. This incident happened at 2:30 a.m. We didn’t sound our sirens or send text messages because there was no need to do so.”

Campuses continue to also ponder who and when certain stakeholders on campus should be notified about non-emergencies, such as power outages. For example, doctors and researchers about to begin an operation at a hospital or an electricity-dependent project in a university laboratory might not want to start their work until the threat of thunder storms — which could affect campus electrical power — has passed.

About the Author

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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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