As I See It: Multiple Modes of Mass Notification Make Sense

Recent tragic events have shined a giant spotlight on college campuses’ crisis communication tools and their limitations. While it is extremely challenging to prepare for every crisis situation, multichannel communication tools significantly improve a campus’ ability to reach its community in the fastest, most efficient and effective method possible. As such, these tools must be a cornerstone of any prudent college or university crisis response plan.

Typical campus crisis response plans that rely on a small number of one-way communication channels, such as E-mail, often lead to segments of a community not being reached during an emergency. The challenges with limited-channel crisis communication capabilities include missed messages; difficulties in accounting for campus lifecycles and their impact on communication effectiveness; lack of visibility as to whether students have received and understood the messages that have been sent; additional resource requirements to manage multiple communication channels; slow response times; and difficulties in managing notification responses.

With an automated mass notification system, colleges and universities can greatly enhance emergency response capabilities while also improving routine communication tools to speed up and improve interaction with students, faculty and administration.

Multichannel notification systems enable a college or university to:

  • Increase the likelihood of reaching students and others immediately with important information: The challenge with any crisis communication system is to ensure message delivery to an available channel of communication, whatever that channel may be, such as cell phones, E-mail, SMS text messaging, instant messaging and so forth. By limiting the number of channels available for a university to communicate with its constituents, the probability of reaching those constituents is greatly diminished.

    A communication plan must also account for different patterns of “contactability” that mimic the flow of life on a campus. For example, assuming classes begin at 9 a.m., there is a vast difference in how universities can most successfully reach students and faculty at 8:50 a.m. (for example, dorm and office phones) vs. how they will most successfully reach students and faculty at 9:10 a.m. (for example, instant or text messaging and cell phones). If E-mail is used as a primary form of mass notification, then individuals not sitting in front of their PCs when a university sends out information about the crisis will miss the message. Also, because each audience might use a different tool as their primary communication method, it is important for campuses to be able to communicate with students, faculty and administration in any of the ways in which they like to be contacted.

    For college campuses, it is critical to communicate with students using text messaging or instant messaging as these communication channels represent how students commonly communicate today. However, faculty and administration may be more responsive to voice messages sent to mobile phones or BlackBerry devices. When researching a multichannel communication system, it is important to consider whether the tool has the ability to communicate across the multiple channels to which audiences are most responsive.

  • Gauge effectiveness of communications instantaneously: Everyday tools, such as E-mail and voicemail, may create a “communications black hole”- messages go in with no validation that students and faculty have received or read them. With a mass notification system, the communications dashboard provides administrators with up-to-the-second reporting of who received and confirmed messages and who did not. Improved visibility into communication effectiveness also enhances situational awareness. College and university administrators have the information they need to better determine what the appropriate next steps are in their response to a crisis.
  • Reduce the resources required to manage crisis communications: Mass notification systems allow organizations to reduce the number of resources and the complexity of communicating across multiple channels. By centralizing this capability with one tool, colleges and universities can save precious time when communicating critical information and free up personnel to focus on managing the crisis, rather than the logistics of communications.
  • Improve response times: Mass notification systems enable a college or university to quickly respond to emergency situations by providing them with the capability to assemble key crisis team members – such as administrators, campus security, and media relations officers – quickly and efficiently. Many college and university crisis communication plans require certain key individuals be informed within a set period of time about any emergency situation. In practice, however, it is usually very difficult to locate and communicate with these team members immediately when an event occurs. Using a mass notification system allows an organization to instantly telephone conference in key first responders and important administration members to address the situation in real-time.
  • Interact with students, faculty and administrators: With mass notification systems, colleges and universities can provide a two-way channel of communication with students, faculty and administrators. This two-way capability can be used to check on the status of administrators, the health and welfare of the faculty or students, or to determine the availability of critical first-response resources.

Colleges and universities need to be prepared to respond to myriad crises, including campus violence, natural or man-made disasters, fires, electrical failures, and more. A mass notification system is a fundamental tool in enabling quick and effective response to any emergency.

Mark Ladin is vice president of global marketing and strategy for 3n® (National Notification Network), a manufacturer of automated notification systems. For more information about 3n, log on to www.3nonline.com or call (888) 366-4911.

For the unabridged version of this article, please refer to the July/August 2007 issue of Campus Safety magazine. To subscribe, go to https://secure2.bobitweb.com/campussafetymagazine/subscribe/.

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Campus Safety magazine is another great resource for public safety, security and emergency management professionals. It covers all aspects of campus safety, including access control, video surveillance, mass notification and security staff practices. Whether you work in K-12, higher ed, a hospital or corporation, Campus Safety magazine is here to help you do your job better!

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