What Works (and What Doesn’t) When Deploying Mass Notification Solutions

Emergency communications are complex and require sophisticated tools to generate effective results.

What Works (and What Doesn’t) When Deploying Mass Notification Solutions

(Photo: REDPIXEL, Adobe Stock)

Most campuses know they need solutions that help them communicate critical information during an emergency. That’s why many have turned to mass notification tools to help spread the word quickly during a crisis. However, not all tools are created equal, and without a thorough strategy, campuses may discover there are gaps that impede their ability to share messages with everyone. This can unintentionally put people in harm’s way.

Let’s start by understanding what doesn’t work. Campuses that rely on a single method for communication, like only sending SMS text messages or mass emails, often find that their messages do not reach their audience in a timely manner. When an emergency occurs, every second counts, but SMS text messages and emails lack urgency. Phones can be on silent or placed out of reach, and these methods put the onus on the recipient to see the message and take action. This can lead to people starting to respond to an announcement while others are left confused about what is happening.

Some campuses try to overcome these gaps by purchasing multiple solutions that address very specific needs, but this approach also presents challenges. Disparate solutions require someone to have knowledge of how to activate and use each one. If that person is unavailable or far away from a console or device they need to use to access it, that can cost precious time. Campuses may also not be able to activate those separate solutions simultaneously, which can result in even more lost time as each is activated and some people end up receiving messages later than others.

The other concern is message consistency. With different solutions, messages may be crafted by different people using different language to describe the type of event and what actions people should take. This can lead to unnecessary confusion which could put people in danger or delay the amount of time it takes for help to arrive. The other issue could be tools that do not allow messages to be created and stored ahead of time. Creating emergency communications on the fly rarely leads to people having the information they need to stay safe. People are often rushing or in a panic which can cause them to leave out details. Being able to draft messages ahead of time, store them, and access them at a moment’s notice makes it much more likely people will receive the notifications with relevant information.

In certain cases, campuses only think of mass notification as tools to be used for emergency situations. While this is the primary use case for many solutions, if campuses are unable to leverage it for non-emergency events, they’re getting little value out of their investment and putting their staff in a position that limits their familiarity with the system. Campuses strive to create secure environments where emergencies are rare occurrences, so if staff are not using a mass notification tool regularly, when they do need to use it, there might be delays as they relearn how to navigate and use it.

Campuses should ultimately be cautious in deploying a solution that simply checks a box. Emergency communications are complex and require sophisticated tools to generate effective results. This means looking for solutions that can do more than just send messages. Being able to have more functionality, including the ability to request assistance, view reports, and actively manage incidents with resources and virtual collaboration, provides more value to campuses and can potentially lead to better outcomes.

Integrating Your Mass Notification System with Other Technologies

To get the most out of mass notification, campuses need to take a big-picture view of their emergency response plans. Understanding what needs to be done before, during, and after an event will give them a good idea of what kind of tools are needed and how they can best be used. Campuses should also consider how they can best reach everyone at the same time with the same message. Some mass notification solutions offer more integrations than others. This can help consolidate the management of different systems into a single platform, rather than trying to utilize multiple separate ones.

With a wide range of integrations, campuses don’t need to worry about how they’ll reach people on campus versus those that are off campus because they can send SMS text messages and emails at the same time they send audio messages and computer pop-ups to on-campus devices. Campuses invest in lots of technology, and many may not even realize they can connect it to their mass notification system and add more value by leveraging those tools for safety and communication purposes.

When desk phones, desktop computers, digital signage, overhead speakers, and mobile phones can all be connected to a mass notification system and used to broadcast text and audio messages during an emergency, campuses create an intrusive and immediate means for sharing information. Ongoing activities can be interrupted, and people’s attention can be captured so they stop what they are doing and know what is happening. This gets people responding faster, allowing safety teams to better direct assistance to where it is most needed. Integrations with systems like collaboration tools can also help gather key stakeholders quickly in a virtual space where they can share information, assess the situation, and determine the best course of action.

Mass notification integrations can extend beyond communication tools to other Internet of Things devices as well. This can be useful in triggering alerts or deploying additional safety measures during an event. For example, contact closures on an AED cabinet could activate a notification, or electronic door locks could seal off parts of a campus building after a notification is sent out. If a panic button is pressed, a notification could include a link to a feed from the nearest security camera so safety teams can see what is happening in real time. This is also where campuses can begin to get value beyond safety use cases. Bell schedules, automated audio announcements, sensors that can detect water leaks, and more can all be used to improve daily operations and keep staff familiar with mass notification tools.

To ensure mass notification is working the way a campus intends, the two other key components are testing and reporting. Once a campus has set up its mass notification ecosystem, it’ll want to test to see that messages are reaching the right people and devices. Doing this during non-critical times will give stakeholders the ability to make adjustments and correct any errors that may present themselves. If a campus does encounter an emergency and leverages mass notification, after-action reporting can provide vital insights to identify what works and what doesn’t. Those reports can then be used to inform future decisions and alterations to existing plans.

When considering what works and what doesn’t for mass notification, it’s important to keep in mind that no two campuses are the same. These are general guidelines for what each campus should strive for, but there are nuances that campus leaders will need to consider given the size of their facilities and population. Keeping people safe should always be the top priority though, and campuses should take every measure in their power to keep people informed so they can avoid danger and protect their well-being.


Paul Shain is president and CEO of Singlewire Software, developers of InformaCast, a mass notification and critical event management solution.

The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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