Tips for Establishing Your Mass Notification Policies
Three university emergency managers tell Campus Safety Conference attendees that there are no cookie-cutter solutions when it comes to mass notification.
Sending Non-Emergency Messages via MNEC
The panel debated the use of an MNEC system for non-emergency situations. Burns held the UCLA BruinAlert system strictly to emergencies.
“When MNEC first evolved, the systems communicated weather and community messages… people thought they were toys,” he notes. By keeping the BruinAlert system only for emergencies, Burns says it told students “we mean business.” SCU uses social media to communicate to those outside the campus.
Goldfarb has a similar policy in place at USC, where the TrojansAlert is only used for immediate harm emergencies. Even in instances where a crime has already occurred but it is over and there is no immediate danger, the university does not use the TrojansAlert. Instead, an email is sent making students and faculty aware.
At FSU, Bujak defends using the FSU Alert EZ for non-emergencies, noting that the more interaction students have with the system, the more familiar they become with it and the more they will use it. Messages for events like severe thunderstorms are clearly identified as “announcements” while real emergencies are also indicated. He admits that using MNEC for non-emergency messaging can often “help pay for the system.”
He continues, “One of our biggest challenges is that people think we overuse it. MNEC is not ‘all or nothing. If there is no immediate threat or it’s the middle of the night and you don’t want to send a siren-level alert, just send an email or text.”
He says that consistent messaging via the system has now created a level of “respect and rapport” between students and FSU’s administration on social media, so much so that students now alert the university for incidents like water leaks and traffic signals being out.
Students & Faculty Only vs. Including Parents
The panel also took on the topic of whether an MNEC system should allow parents to register versus just students and faculty.
Burns says it is still open for debate whether emergency alert systems should only be available to students and staff, but that is the policy SCU has adopted. To keep parents in the loop, the school uses social media to auto tweet the same messages that are sent via the mass notification system. That keeps the parents informed but outside the actual database.
At USC, Goldfarb opened a second system using Blackboard Connect to allow individual departments and remote campuses to issue their own follow-up alerts to the initial TrojansAlert messaging. That keeps those groups informed but also not in the MNEC database. As an example, one of the science research teams set up its own secondary alert system. When there was a weekend power outage at USC, those researchers were notified so they could get to the university to check on or move valuable research spec
imens that were in freezers on campus.
FSU also likes to wall off its MNEC system. The FSU Alert EZ system is closed… it’s just for students and faculty. Bujak says there are potential “bandwidth issues” if parents are notified. He cited the example that if an alert goes out to parents, they are most likely going to immediately try to call their child to check on him or her, which could overwhelm local cell towers and communications infrastructure.
“It’s the primary argument to keep mom and dad off the system,” he says, adding that’s why FSU segregates its database. To keep the database up to date, students who graduate are immediately removed, along with faculty that may be terminated. There is even the ability to remove a student who takes a semester off from the database and add him or her back later.
Who Should Send Emergency Alerts
Establishing a policy that empowers the proper people to be able to “hit the button” to send an emergency message is critical.
“We empower the first-line field supervisors to send out a mass alert,” says USC’s Goldfarb. He notes that it can be detrimental if there are too few individuals empowered to send an alert, primarily because it can sometimes take too long to get an OK. Each USC supervisor is fully trained on the specific criteria necessary to elicit sending an alert.
FSU has taken it a layer further down the chain of command by allowing dispatchers to send out alerts. They are told to go up the chain of command if they have any doubt.
Burns advised attendees to not restrict the ability to send an alert to just the president of the university, noting that often he might not even know how to operate the system.
“The university president should delegate the authority. You must have proper training and policies for MNEC in place for your emergency manager, campus safety staff and a few other core staff,” he says.
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