Take It From the Experts When Crafting Your Emergency Messages

LOS ANGELES – No matter what type of mass notification systems your campus uses, one critical step must not be forgotten: The creation and delivery of the actual content of the emergency notification. The following experts provide some sage advice on making your messages count.

Repeat audible emergency announcements:
According to Bill Dunne, director of emergency preparedness for the UCLA Medical Center, during emergencies, the stress and commotion of the situations often limit people’s ability to comprehend an announcement. Because of this, an audible emergency alert message must be repeated clearly several times. “It could be the clearest message that, on a normal day they would understand,” he says. “But unless you say the message three times and say it clearly, because of all of the external factors and anxiety, people may not understand it.”

Messages must be clear, originate from an authority:
According to Karla Lemmon, Honeywell’s product manager for Instant Alert, a phone message should be easily understood, concise and to the point. The message should always include the date, time and name of the person sending the alert. “It should also be recorded in the sender’s own voice, if possible,” says Lemmon. “This verifies to the contact that the alert is legitimate and can also provide a sense of calm and familiarity in the event of a crisis situation.”

Natasha Rabe, chief business officer for Blackboard Connect Inc., says, “No one is including the time that [SMS text messages] are initiated. You might have an incident at 10:04 a.m. and it gets cleared up at 10:30 a.m., but your message doesn’t reach your recipient until 11 a.m.”  This causes confusion. Also, according to Rabe, some carriers allow campuses to break up the message so it can be delivered in three or more installments. The problem with this is a campus constituent might receive the second message before the first. Without a message initiation timestamp, the recipient might not be able to figure out which portion of the message goes first. [Note: Long emergency alert text messages are not recommended because of this issue as well as the fact that lengthy ones slow down the sending process.]

Keep the length of the text messages short:
“Depending on how the carrier’s system works, some of them allow you to enter only 110 characters (including spaces),” says Rabe.

UCLA allows for 160 characters. All that is left open to be filled in at the last minute is the location (which takes 15 characters).

An example of a text message used by UCLA (and other campuses around the nation):

  • Bruin Alert
  • Emergency Message – Campus Fire
  • Major fire at (location). Avoid area, evacuate nearby buildings. Tune to AM 1630 or www.ucla.edu for more information.

Audible, written announcements should be short too:

“Keep them to 30 words or less because when stress is high, people’s comprehension levels actually go down,” says 3n’s Director of Marketing Linda Souza. “Normally, try to keep the messages to a sixth grade reading level or below to account for differences in your audiences as well as the stress factors.”

Communications department must vet messages:
Most experts agree that the public information officer (PIO)/communications department should review all emergency communications (preferably ahead of time, before any emergency occurs.)

It is also important for the individuals creating the messages to be trained and have experience in writing emergency announcements. “A trained professional knows what information has to be included in every message,” says Rabe. “When you are in a time sensitive situation and you’re not used to crafting messages, you may forget something that may lead to 10, 15, 40 phone calls into 9-1-1. [During an emergency] is not when you need to have your phone lines tied up.”

Emergency alerts should be location-specific:
According to Samuel Shanes, CEO of Talk-a-Phone, a message for one area of campus might not be appropriate for another. An institution should have a system that can address the different needs of different areas of a campus.

“If something spilled in the lab in Smith Hall, you would want to send a message to people on the outside of the building that says, ‘Don’t enter Smith Hall.’ For people on the inside, the campus professionals need to make a decision. They might tell people who are in certain rooms not to go into the halls but to close the doors, turn off the ventilation system and open the windows.”

Test the system often (but not too often):
“Test the system regularly!” says Rabe and many other mass notification experts. This will help you to:

  • Cleanse the system of bad phone numbers
  • Inform your community about how you will be communicating with them and what to expect
  • Raise awareness about the issues/benefits of each communication method
  • Refine your emergency communication plan
  • Identify for your community who your credible sources are on campus should an incident occur
  • Know exactly how to use the system should something happen rather than becoming familiar with the system during a time-sensitive situation

To view charts, please click here.

Related Articles:

For a comprehensive overview of mass notification and emergency alert solutions, visit Campus Safety’s new Mass Notification microsite: www.campussafetymagazine.com/MassNotification.

Robin Hattersley Gray is executive editor of Campus Safety. She can be reached at robin.gray@bobit.com.

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