A Surprising Number of Colleges Don’t Follow These 3 Mass Notification Tips

Schools should never stop looking for ways to improve their mass notification systems.
Published: February 17, 2016

Before students make a decision on which college will be their home for the next four years, they – and their parents – want to know how safe it is.

Erik Stafford, Director of Higher Education Sales for Alertus Technologies, says students and parents often ask schools about campus threats, how security officials handle those threats and how the college informs attendees about them.

“That’s the first thing they ask on a tour,” says Stafford. “What do you do to notify my student and me about what’s happening on campus, and what are you doing to protect students? If an incident occurs and somebody is completely in the dark, they’re going to say hey, I didn’t hear about this, this is a problem…we need to be able to know about these notifications and if your methods weren’t sufficient.”

While colleges are generally on top of their security strategies, there are still instances where a technology or procedure is overlooked, and threats get through.

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For example, Jamie Underwood, Director of Marketing Communications for Alertus Technologies, says colleges can make mistakes when evaluating their mass notification strategies.

RELATED: 10 Keys to Testing Campus Preparedness

Some schools, she says, think they will get their emergency messages out to everyone by sending it through only one or two main media, such as email or texts.

“They don’t think about mass notification reaching people who maybe don’t have a cell phone on them,” Underwood says. “They don’t necessarily think about all the different components for outreach, so they may have many gaps for missing groups of people in certain buildings, and certain individuals.”

In addition to forgetting about certain people during an emergency, colleges can also overlook testing their security technologies and strategies on a regular basis.

By failing to test security technologies and strategies, colleges will miss out on the opportunity to evaluate them to see if they still work, or if they need to be updated.

Ryan Ockuly, National Sales Director for Alertus Technologies, says when security technologies don’t work, they won’t provide maximum coverage during an actual emergency.

“So many times we’ve heard of customers that have implemented technologies…but they haven’t tested them in six or eight months, or a year,” he says. “Test maybe at a minimum, quarterly, maybe monthly. [If] they find any holes in their notification strategies, they can either add technology or notification modes so that they have full coverage.”

Aside from testing, Underwood says colleges can sometimes make big mistakes with their security planning.

While most colleges typically have a security plan ready in the event on an emergency, Underwood says they can fumble with the small details.

Broad plans will certainly help colleges prepare for a dangerous situation; however, the small details will change alongside the uniqueness of each emergency.

“The exact stuff is going to change when an event occurs,” Underwood says. “I think a lot of times, they don’t get into the minutiae of, how are we going to word a message, how is this going to be received, or testing the system to make sure everything is running properly, that the right people are in the loop. I think it’s a step that sometimes gets overlooked, and they don’t think about it until down the road.”

Tips to Fleshing Out Your College’s Security Plan
1) Launch messages to multiple channels

Whenever a college is launching a message via mass notification technologies, Underwood says it should make sure to send that message to multiple channels.

Getting messages out to more than one channel maximizes coverage, and increases the likelihood that students, faculty and staff will receive it whether or not they have their personal devices or email open.

“I think in an ideal situation, you’re hitting up those students in multiple channels,” Underwood says. “We’ve talked to customers and gotten feedback from their students that say ‘yeah, we were overwhelmed with all the information we got in terms of receiving it through three or four different methods’; so there’s no way you’re going to miss that message or what’s going on, and what steps you need to take.”

2) Be honest about the test results

Stafford says colleges should come clean while evaluating a security solution or strategy.

Fabricating a percentage about how many people actually receive a mass notification message, for example, doesn’t mask a solution’s inefficiency. Instead, it puts more lives at risk if an actual threat arises.

Stafford says testing a solution or strategy will be an eye-opener for colleges, and give them leeway on what changes need to be made.

“Test them and be honest with yourself,” he says. “A lot of our customers have text messaging and say oh, that covers everybody;  in reality, the ones who come back and are really honest with us say, we’re lucky if even 50 percent respond to that. On those tests, get feedback so you can see where the gaps are and work hard to test the solution continually.”

3) Get the details straight

As colleges go over and revise their security strategies, they should clearly define all necessary details.

Details may include campus evacuation routes, how to react during an active shooting event, or how students can utilize a security app on their personal device.

Whatever those details spell out, Underwood says they should supplement the college’s overarching security plans, and should be easily comprehended by students, faculty and staff.

“You want to have a very comprehensive system in place, but you want to make sure you know how to use the system and have a thorough plan to execute it well,” she says. “That’s going to depend on the situation as well.”

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Strategy & Planning Series
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Strategy & Planning Series