Des Moines Area Community College Upgrades Emergency Communications
With their upgraded communications system, Des Moines Area Community College officials feel confident they’re prepared for any emergency.
Des Moines Area Community College is the largest community college in Iowa, with 12 mostly rural locations that cover 120 miles from east to west. With an enrollment of over 20,000 full-time credit students and nearly 40,000 non-credit students, school officials are always looking for the best way to keep their campuses safe.
“We understood that budgets were tight, but the day is past that your emergency plans can be ‘It’s never going to happen here,’” says Ned Miller, the Director of Campus Safety and Emergency Management at Des Moines Area Community College. “Unfortunately there have been enough events that have occurred on and off campuses that I don’t think people think that way anymore. We felt like [emergency response capabilities] had to be standard.”
Around 2008 Des Moines Area Community College, commonly referred to as DMACC, made funding available to invest in an emergency communications system for its campuses. Following an RFP process, school officials brought three vendors onto campus to conduct on-sight demos of their solutions with school officials from departments including facilities management, IT and security.
“A critical piece of our criteria was that we could quickly maneuver through the system,” Miller says. “We wanted a dashboard that was easy to understand. And also we’re a commuter campus, we don’t have residential, so we wanted to be able to reach a group of people quickly no matter where they were.”
Another reason for bringing vendors onto campus was to ensure their solutions were compatible with the school’s existing infrastructure.
Des Moines Area Community College Adopts a System
Eventually school officials decided to invest in Rave Mobile Safety technology for its ease of use and impressive range of mass notification capabilities. Within 30 days, it was fully functional on the DMACC campus.
DMACC trained its existing crisis communications team, which includes senior administration officials and campus provosts, to use the system first. Security officers were also trained to send messages.
“It’s not a tiny group of people that can use the system,” Miller says. “But it’s also people who know to only use it for emergencies. Most of our campuses have three or four people that are trained to send alerts.”
Early on, officials made the decision to only send messages through the Rave system for emergencies and weather-related closings. Since then, various departments have requested to use it, but officials have remained adamant about avoiding “alert fatigue”.
That’s partly because officials find plenty of weather-related reasons to use the system as is.
“We use the Rave system fairly regularly in the winter living up here in Iowa,” Jay Tiefenthaler, who works as the director of energy management and campus safety at Des Moines Area Community College, says. “We get quite a bit of weather variability, but with Rave we can have a weather closing on one campus and only notify the affected students rather than the entire school system.”
Campus officials send notifications as early as possible for weather emergencies (messages are usually sent by six in the morning). The alerts contain the date and the specific reason for the cancellation, and typically inform students they’ll follow up with additional information on the DMACC website.
The system’s regular use in the winter doesn’t stop campus officials from testing Rave capabilities periodically.
“We test all sites collectively once a semester, and we test on different scales,” Tiefenthaler says. “I send out a message to Ned and a few other individuals, and we always encourage our provosts from our outside campuses to try sending something out, just to make sure they’re familiar with it.”
Tiefenthaler says officials have also used the system for timely warnings in accordance with the Clery Act. But fortunately, DMACC hasn’t had to use Rave technology for anything like an active intruder situation.
DMACC Officials Give Emergency Communication Advice
Tiefenthaler and Miller have been extremely happy with Rave Mobile Safety since the investment.
“It just gives us confidence that we can reach as many people as we need in a given situation without sending messages to people that don’t really need them,” Miller says.
Tiefenthaler says other university officials looking to upgrade their emergency notification systems need to be sure to involve all the relevant players in the process from day one.
“Sometimes people have the impression it’s just safety and security departments in your college that need to be involved, but ultimately you need to involve your IT department, administration, public safety, potentially student services, there are more players than people may expect,” Tiefenthaler says. “Rave can incorporate all these people in its system, so you want to make sure you have something that works for everybody.”
Miller adds that officials need to find a system robust enough to have all the capabilities they’re looking for, and stresses the importance of finding a system that’s user friendly.
Finally, of course, both men emphasize the importance of practicing and drilling on the system once it’s in place.
Miller, who has been with Des Moines Area Community College for close to ten years now, will be officially retiring in June, leaving Tiefenthaler to oversee the safety and security department.
Fortunately, with the Rave Mobile Safety system running on all cylinders and campus officials well trained on its uses, Miller can rest easy knowing Des Moines Area Community College is in good hands.
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