Tips for Establishing Your Mass Notification Policies

Published: August 6, 2014

LOS ANGELES – Every college and university needs to tweak their mass notification deployment and policies to find the right fit for their student body, faculty and public safety team. That was the primary message gleaned from a panel of three renowned university emergency management directors at the recent 2014 Campus Safety Conference.

The panelists-Dave Bujak of Florida State University (FSU), David Burns of Santa Clara University (SCU), and Steven F. Goldfarb of the University of Southern California (USC)-participated in a panel moderated by Campus Safety Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Robin Hattersley.

Among the tweaks that each campus made included how students sign up for the mass notification/emergency management (MNEC) system, what types of messages-both emergency and non-emergency-should be communicated, who is authorized to send MNEC communications, and how the alert system should be complemented by other forms of communication. The bottom line message from the panelists: There is no off-the-shelf solution that school safety directors and administrators can simply plug in without adjusting to their own liking.

“It’s not just buying something off the shelf and plugging it in,” says Burns. “Sit down with your IT department, faculty, student representatives and other staff and find out exactly what you need.”

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Comprehensive MNEC Systems Provde Layered Coverage

For Bujak at FSU, the school’s FSU Alert EZ Emergency Notification and Warning System is just one of 30 methods used to communicate information to students. Notifications/alerts are sent via SMS text, emails, voice calls and mobile apps. Inside most buildings on campus are at least one audible and one visual delivery method, including indoor sirens, digital displays, desktop pop-ups and Alertus beacons. Outdoors, FSU uses sirens, digital displays and blue lights. Online, the Tallahassee, Fla.-based campus has an alert on the system website and on the university’s main website. Finally, RSS feeds, social media posts via Twitter and Facebook are posted, along with notifying local media partners.

At USC, the TrojansAlert Emergency Notification System covers multiple campuses. Goldfarb says USC uses Cooper Notification’s web-based Roam Secure Alert Network (RSAN) software. The system is hosted by Cooper and can send hundreds of thousands of messages simultaneously to multiple media, SMS text, email, pager and more.

At Santa Clara University, Burns also has a multi-pronged system using Blackboard Connect that includes SMS text, email, outdoor “big voice” intelligible audio speakers, blue-phone towers and desktop VoIP phone alerts.  At the same time, the school has a second tier system in place called Nixle that sends safety alerts to local media, Santa Clara County officials, and friends and families of SCU students.

How to Get Student, Faculty Participation

FSU has an aggressive enrollment strategy that Bujak refers to as “coerced opt-in,” which is much like an opt-out approach, for registering students and employees for its SMS text message delivery method.

“We get in your face,” says Bujak tongue-in-cheek. FSU has achieved an 85% to 90% participation rate by pushing the system during student course enrollment and during employee orientation, and even during timesheet entry throughout the year. Bujak says that before FSU switched to this method, enrollment was much lower.

Burns, who spent years developing UCLA’s BruinAlert prior to moving to Santa Clara a few years ago, originally tried for opt-in enrollment but it was a struggle.

“We tried raffles, bribes and giveaways to get students to enroll in BruinAlert,” he says half-jokingly. Finally, Burns switched to an opt-out system. He says peer pressure has helped with enrollment.

“Students got ‘jealous’ when they see their friends getting messages that they don’t get,” he says bluntly. Based on that experience, Burns plans to switch Santa Clara’s MNEC system to opt-out. “You need to market the positive aspects of the system at rollout. If people get surprised by an alert in the middle of the night, they will unsubscribe.”

To increase familiarity with emergency notification, all three men recommend testing the system immediately after registration and periodically thereafter. At FSU, Bujak says testing is done three times annually.

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