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WSU’s Smart Approach to Emergency Notification

Here are some of the best practices Washington State University uses when investing in and operating its emergency notification solutions.

WSU’s Smart Approach to Emergency Notification

Campus officials that work in the university’s office of emergency management have completed ICS training in addition to various other trainings depending on their roles within the office.

Officials at Washington State University (WSU) began looking to improve their emergency notification capabilities around 2007. They were not alone.

Many members of the campus security industry identify 2007 as the year emergency management burst into the consciousness of campus administrators everywhere. The reason is simple, if tragic: a number of catastrophes at schools, universities and hospitals around that time, unquestionably highlighted by the shooting at Virginia Tech that left 32 people dead and 17 others wounded.

With the increased emphasis on quickly and effectively responding to any incident that poses a threat to the campus community, many schools and hospitals invested in technological solutions designed to enhance officials’ emergency preparedness.

But even the most capable and comprehensive technology can leave a campus vulnerable if the people charged with operating it don’t adhere to some basic best practices. To learn about some of those practices, Campus Safety spoke with officials at Washington State University and Everbridge, a provider of emergency communications solutions, about a recent project.

Emergency Management Has Many Features

Imad Mouline, Everbridge chief technology officer, says there are five things every institution needs to worry about: people, assets, systems (typically IT), reputation and the supply chain, which may include a bus route or something else that disrupts operations.

When any event occurs, the first step is detecting the situation and then assessing it to determine if there’s a problem or threat. Officials need to do this as early as possible. After that, Mouline says it’s about using all the information available to make the best emergency response decisions possible.

“Our first step is to bring in all this information, then you have to ask, ‘Do I care?’” Mouline says. “From there, the first group to identify is the appropriate responders to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. The second group to identify is the people in harm’s way. The last constituency to worry about is the people who need to be informed. Is it faculty? Students? The media? You have to have a cadence for all of these constituencies that can’t stop because you need to be updating people on what to expect or what to do constantly.”

And of course, no higher education emergency response story is complete without mention of the Clery Act. Another major goal of U.S. colleges and universities is to comply with the multifaceted law, specifically the timely warning requirements, which CS has covered extensively on campussafetymagazine.com.

Fit Emergency Notification Protocols to Your Needs

Mouline says institutions should make sure they can incorporate their emergency response protocols into their emergency notification system during the implementation process.

“A good place to start is putting your institution’s notification procedures in the emergency communications system and, if possible, automating standard operating procedures,” Mouline explains.

WSU administrators were heavily involved in the process of adopting an emergency management solution, working in conjunction with the WSU Police Department. They determined that the Everbridge emergency notification solution was the appropriate option for their institution.

Once the system was implemented, various faculty and staff members with emergency management experience received additional training and were added to the university’s emergency response efforts, including Christine Sanders, who’s also the acting director of the division of governmental studies and services at WSU’s institute for criminal justice.

“Several folks are trained to send out notifications and messages, so if someone is tied up, we always have others who can use the system at a moment’s notice,” Sanders says.

Emergency Response Training, Testing is Key

After Washington State officials decided on Everbridge, the company trained members of the emergency management office on the system. Everbridge officials also worked with WSU to create a training course for other employees.

“We have a PowerPoint we worked with Everbridge to develop, so people from the emergency management office teach personnel on our other campuses,” Sanders explains.

Every office and campus in the WSU system can be notified through the Everbridge solution, although Sanders can’t remember a time officials felt the need to send an emergency notification to every WSU location. So how do they know they even have that capability? Testing of course!

“We test the system at least at the beginning of every semester and the beginning of every summer,” Sanders says.

Getting the Most out of Your Notification System

Washington State sends out messages often for things like bomb threats, for instance. WSU has also begun using Everbridge for what Sanders terms “non-emergency” events.

At the time of this writing, the school was monitoring wildfires across the state that brought smoke onto campus, although they posed no immediate danger to campuses. “We sent out a message alerting people about the poor air quality because of the smoke and directed people to our webpage, which has more details on how to respond to the pollutants in the air,” Sanders says. “We often use Everbridge text, phone and email communications to direct people to the website to find more information.”

Mouline noted that notification systems are used in different ways by different institutions.

“There’s an interesting shift we’re seeing where these solutions are no longer only used for emergencies, but for certain other critical events,” Mouline says. “The definition of critical events varies from school to school and hospital to hospital.”

Some schools and hospital officials take the position that unless lives are at stake, an incident isn’t critical. Others may decide any potential disruption to operations is critical, particularly at hospitals, where delays in patient treatment can be dangerous.

“We started using Everbridge’s community engagement program because that allows us to reach people who may not be on campus for a long time, and that was a gap we previously had,” Sanders says. “For example, we’ll use it to send messages to new students during orientation or to attendees during football games.”

Still, officials are careful not to create what some in the emergency management industry term “alert fatigue.”

“You don’t want to overuse a system so people stop seeing your messages as an emergency notification, so you need to find a balance between [using it for] advisories and emergency notifications,” Sanders explains. “We want our community to know that if they receive a message, they need to take action and be aware of what we’re saying.”

Other Emergency Management Factors to Consider

There are other ways to maximize the effectiveness of your emergency communication system. Many notification systems integrate with other security systems such as access control and video surveillance. It all goes back to getting as much information to decision makers as possible in a short amount of time, then empowering them to respond.

Collaboration is another way of bolstering your emergency preparedness. In Washington State’s case, the school has a shared contract with the city of Pullman, Wash., and the broader county so that they’re all using Everbridge to communicate with each other, which is a good idea regardless of what emergency management system schools use.

“They really understand the value of making sure all relevant stakeholders are aware of incidents and communicating effectively,” Jeff Benanto, Everbridge director of corporate communications, says about WSU’s approach. “They’re all effectively sharing information, and they know the right people are getting the right information.”

Collaboration is especially important if emergency plans call for people to be evacuated off of campus because after giving the campus community instructions on staying safe, officials must also account for them. Working with local agencies can help that process go smoothly.

The overarching point is that every player in the emergency notification industry, from campus officials to vendors and local response agencies, want to protect people and campus property. That task may have become more difficult over the last several years, but the industry has never been more united.

“Campuses are facing an increasingly unpredictable set of threats, but schools and hospitals are taking a more proactive stance on campus safety,” Benanto says. “The bottom line is that every organization has the common goals of keeping people safe and keeping everything running effectively. Together we can all accomplish that.”

About the Author

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Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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