Survey Finds Campuses Using Their Emergency Notification Systems More

Published: February 26, 2024

Campus emergency notification has come a long way since the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech mass shooting in which an active shooter fatally shot two people at an on-campus dormitory and then fatally shot 30 more people and injured 17 others on the opposite side of campus at Norris Hall about an hour and a half later.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Virginia Tech was widely criticized for not immediately notifying students, faculty, and staff about the first shooting at the dormitory. Many critics argued that had the campus community known about the initial dorm shooting, students, faculty, and staff could have taken the necessary steps to protect themselves from the gunman before he arrived at Norris Hall.

Although the Emergency Alert System (EAS) had been in existence in the U.S. since the 1950s, in 2007, most schools, institutions of higher education, and healthcare facilities had, at best, rudimentary emergency notification systems. The 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy changed all that for U.S. colleges and universities.

Fast forward 17 years, and the 2024 Campus Safety Emergency Notification Survey has confirmed what many public safety, security, and emergency management practitioners have come to understand:  that mass notification/alert systems are now an integral and growing part of most school, university, and hospital emergency communication programs.

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Read on to review the latest campus mass notification technology usage, coverage, integration, budget, and testing trends, and more.

Frequency of Use, Number of Technologies Used has Expanded

Institutions of higher education, hospitals, and K-12 schools/districts have increased use of their emergency notification platforms compared to two years ago when Campus Safety first surveyed its readers about their mass alert system usage frequency.

The most significant increase was in email usage: 52% of all of this year’s respondents said they use their email system for emergency notifications every week, several times per week, or daily. That’s a 12-point increase over 2022 when only 40% used email for emergency notifications daily, weekly, or several times per week. Both outdoor audible mass notifications and social media saw 11% increases in usage compared to two years ago. Now, 39% rather than 28% of campuses use their social media platforms and 25% rather than 14% use their outdoor audible systems weekly, several times per week, or daily. Nearly one in three respondents (32%) now use their SMS text alert systems weekly, several times per week, or daily, compared to 22% in 2022.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL SURVEY RESULTS AND CHARTS.

The number of types of emergency/mass notification technologies that campuses use to send out alerts has also greatly increased over the past two years. Compared to 2022 when 33% of survey takers said their organization only used one emergency/mass notification system (and 4% said they had no system at all), now only 7% of respondents said they use one system or don’t have any system at all.

This increase in the number of modes of emergency notification is an indication of significant progress. It’s generally considered a best practice for campuses to use at least two (and preferably more) emergency notification/mass notification systems to reduce the risk of a single point of failure. When there are multiple systems, if one technology stops working for some reason, the other technology(ies) can hopefully pick up the slack. Additionally, when multiple systems are used, the strengths of one technology can compensate for the weaknesses of others in reaching a much broader audience with emergency announcements.

When asked, “In which situations do you send out alerts using all or part of your emergency notification system?” this year’s respondents said they now use their alert systems at the same rate or more for practically all types of emergencies.

The situation with the greatest increase in usage was frost/snow advisories and snow days (57% now, compared to 37% two years ago). Power disruptions and parking lot issues/closures both saw 12% increases in system usage to 50% and 28%, respectively. Lockdowns and traffic issues/road closures had 10% increases to 88% and 28% respectively.

The only type of emergency that had fewer mass notification system activations was sexual assault/violence… from 27% two years ago to only 19% now.

Rate of Usage for Non-Emergencies Remains the Same

Although campuses are using their emergency notification systems more this year compared to two years ago, overall, there hasn’t been an increase in system usage for non-emergencies. The only exceptions are email (91% now compared to 85% in 2022) and outdoor audible systems (20% now compared to 16% in 2022).

DOWNLOAD THE FULL SURVEY RESULTS AND CHARTS.

That being said, non-emergency usage is highly dependent on campus type. More than seven in ten K-12 respondents (71%) use their SMS text alert systems for non-emergencies, compared to 50% of healthcare and only 36% of higher education survey takers.

It’s important to note that the use of SMS text alerts for non-emergencies is quite controversial.

“There is a constant desire to utilize the MNS [mass notification system] for administrative announcements that are not emergency related,” said one of this year’s survey participants. “The concern is that if too many ‘non-emergency’ alerts are sent, employees and students will ignore the emergency alerts.”

Additionally, if employees, students, and parents are allowed opt out of a text alert program, sending too many non-emergency texts could prompt them to do so.

However, there are effective ways organizations can use SMS text alerts to send non-emergency messages. Many systems on the market today allow administrators to designate recipient groups, which helps organizations better target both emergency and non-emergency messages. Some systems also allow students, faculty, staff, parents, clinicians, and the surrounding community to designate which types of announcements they want to receive.

That said, it’s usually best for an organization to make non-emergency announcements over loudspeakers, on social media, and via digital signage rather than cell phone texts so as not to fatigue SMS text alert recipients. At 35%, K-12 respondents were the most likely to use their digital signage for non-emergency announcements, compared to 25% of higher education and 14% of healthcare survey takers.

At 7%, institutions of higher education were the least likely to use their indoor speaker systems for non-emergency announcements, compared to 32% of healthcare and 50% of K-12 campuses. The same usage trend applies to outdoor speaker systems: only 5% of colleges use these systems for non-emergencies compared to 14% of healthcare and 33% of K-12 respondents.

K-12 schools/districts are the organizations that use social media for non-emergencies the most: 71% compared to 55% of higher education and 27% of healthcare survey takers.

Survey Participant Satisfaction with Their Systems Improving Overall

For the most part, satisfaction with system quality and coverage and the ability to send alerts has increased compared to two years ago. On a scale from 1 to 5 with 1 being “not satisfied at all” and 5 being “extremely satisfied,” the satisfaction rating for respondents’ ability to send alerts to administrators, staff, faculty, and clinicians increased from 3.8 to 4.0 this year. System quality improved from 3.7 to 3.8, and coverage increased from 3.6 to 3.8. The biggest improvements were in respondents’ ability to send alerts to individuals who are outdoors (3.0 to 3.4), parents/family members (3.3 to 3.6), students (3.5 to 3.8), and the hearing- or sight-impaired (2.5 to 2.8).

There was some backsliding. Respondents’ satisfaction ratings with their ability to send alerts to visitors dropped from 2.8 two years ago to 2.6 today. It dropped even more for the surrounding community: from 2.9 in 2022 to 2.6 now.

Campuses Making Progress with Alert System Integration

One survey participant described their integration/interoperability struggles: “Our mass notification system (SMS text messages, email, phone calls, etc.) is not connected to our public address system. Both systems have to be activated individually in an emergency, which can cause a slowdown in distributing the emergency messages.”

Fortunately, technology integration/interoperability can help speed up the delivery of alerts, and this year’s survey participants’ organizations appear to be progressing on this front.

The percentage of respondents who said their systems aren’t integrated and they don’t plan on integrating them was cut by more than half from 23% in 2022 to 11% today. Additionally, two in three respondents (67%) with multiple emergency notification systems said all (24%) or some (43%) of their technologies are integrated. That’s 7% more than two years ago.

At 80%, institutions of higher education led the pack in mass notification technology integration. K-12 campuses came in second with 63% of their systems being either fully or partially integrated. Healthcare brought up the rear with only 43%.

Emergency Notification Budgets Run the Gamut

New to this year’s Emergency Notification Survey was the question, “In an average year, how much does your campus, district, or organization spend on your emergency notification/mass notification program overall (equipment purchases/upgrades, maintenance, software, licensing fees, training, personnel to operate the systems, PR, etc.)?”

The answers ranged from nothing (6%) to more than $200,000 (4%). However, more than half (54%) spent $5,001 to $50,000 per year. Obviously, the amount spent depends on a wide range of factors, including organization/campus size, geography, the number of students, staff, patients, and visitors on campus, the number and sophistication of emergency notification systems used, and more. This year’s survey did not ask for that information.

It’s also important to note that 38% of the more than 250 people who participated in this survey did not know how much their campus, district, or organization spends on mass notification every year.

Rate of Mass Notification System Testing Has Stayed the Same

It is advisable for campuses to frequently test their emergency/mass notification systems. Doing so ensures that the staff members running the technology know how to use it. Frequent and regular testing also lets campus public safety and emergency management personnel know if the system is working properly. The last thing any organization wants is to find out during a crisis that their alert system is malfunctioning.

More than eight out of ten of this year’s respondents (81%) said they test their systems weekly (9%), monthly (31%), or several times per year (40%), which is practically the same as the responses from the 2022 survey (82%).

Unfortunately, 19% of this year’s survey participants said their organizations are only testing their systems yearly (13%) or never (6%).

DOWNLOAD THE FULL SURVEY RESULTS AND CHARTS.


Campus Safety thanks the more than 250 protection professionals who participated in this survey. To read about some of their successes and challenges, click here.

Check out the results from some of our previous Emergency Notification Deep Dives:  2023 | 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019

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