Can Mass Notification Really Change the Outcome of Emergencies?

Published: December 11, 2011

Mass notification capabilities in higher education facilities have evolved significantly over the years. From fire alarms and internal PA systems, current mass notification systems have morphed into intricate systems that communicate emergency messages via Voice mail, E-mail, text messaging, instant messaging and social media updates.

A driving force behind the metamorphosis of mass notification has been the availability of new technologies and networking strategies. The 2007 tragedy at Virginia Tech has been a major catalyst in the implementation of mass notification capabilities.  The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) section 668.46 (g.1) formally categorized the requirement for an IHE mass notification capability and defined the initiation procedures of these systems. The culmination of technology and regulation inevitably raises the question of whether or not the outcome still serves the original objectives of mass notification.      

Mass notification is first and foremost a capability intended to improve safety and security.  A closer examination of current mass notification practices would appear to indicate the following:

  • The 2008 Clery act amendment requires initiation of process after confirmation of an emergency. The assumption of an absolute ability to confirm an emergency ignores statistics that indicate that 20% of targeted violence “took place off campus or in non-campus IHE locations against targeted IHE members” The alternative of addressing random personal or local law enforcement as a confirming entity is both potentially time consuming and highly inaccurate in the initial phase of an emergency, thus putting into question the core of the practice.
  • Mass notification Clery act regulation emphasizes speed of delivery. However, from a pragmatic perspective, an unavoidable delay exists between the generation and transmission of mass notification and between the fluid and rapidly evolving nature of critical events. When speed is prioritized over accurate and factual information, or when the generated messages fail to portray rapidly changing circumstances, they can create confusion and critically contradict responses (evacuation vs. lockdown). A result of an erroneous response by the campus community can, in turn, significantly hinder first responder’s efforts. 
  • Early, and possibly inaccurate mass notification context can, and has been, directly broadcasted over local media outlets, a practice that adds to the confusion and anxiety level of all involved.
  • Historically, most extreme incidents end within 10-15 minutes, commonly before law enforcement arrives on scene. Since in such cases mass notification is received by its intended audience only after the incident is over, an unavoidable question is what effect can mass notification possibly have on the final outcome of extreme events when information is unavailable when it is most critically needed? 
  • The threat of terrorism and prolonged 2008 Mumbai style attacks might be a shift in the active shooter 10-15 minute time frame assumption; however “Mass Notification” in a mega attack scenario would no longer apply to the limited campus community but rather to a far grander scale.

As of mid-2010, institutions that receive federal funding are required to implement a mass notification capability. Evolving technologies and the rapidly developing social media medium enable new and unprecedented mass notification strategies. The aforementioned arguments indicate that the 2008 federal mass notification amendments were arguably a hasty  reaction to the Virginia Tech incident and fail to take into full account realistic limitations while emphasizing  reactive measures to critical events.

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In an economy and industry of limited resources, decision makers need to better understand the core limitations of mass notification and clearly define mass notification goals, in realistic terms, prior to selecting and implementing a mass notification system. Funds allocated to mass notification can potentially yield a greater return on investment if spent on alternative, proactive or preventive measures. Only a comprehensive and balanced approach that includes mass notification in its proportional roll can restore a lost equilibrium to the traditional concepts of crisis management and emergency response. 

Ernest Burt III, M.C.J. is the associate dean of criminal justice at Keiser University, and Oren Alter is the associate vice chancellor of crisis management at Keiser University.

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Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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