Should You Update Your Campus Emergency Communications Plan?

Here are four questions from OnSolve to help you determine the answer.
Published: October 18, 2018

For school administrators and decision-makers, there are typically indisputable signs when the campus wifi network lacks sufficient bandwidth, or if residence halls are in need of maintenance.

Less obvious, however – absent a triggering crisis event – is when your campus emergency communications plan is in need of a refresh. As the 2018-2019 school year progresses, university decision makers should be asking themselves several important questions about the efficacy of their emergency communications strategy and considering what changes can be made to better ensure the safety and security of your campus.

Emergency communications planning takes into account lessons learned from the prior school year but must continue throughout the current year in response to observations on evolving threats. The ability to rapidly communicate with students, faculty, visitors and parents is challenged by an increasingly complex threat environment that can include severe weather events, active shooters, cybersecurity attacks and on-campus protests to name a few.

For a sound emergency communications plan able to account for all scenarios, at all times, and for all stakeholders, school administrators and decision-makers should have answers for these four questions:

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1. Is my data up-to-date? 

The ability to rapidly reach students, faculty and staff with emergency updates hinges on having the most accurate and up-to-date contact information, including mobile phone, email information and current address. While this process starts at initial registration it must continue throughout the school year as student communications preferences change.

Require students and others to verify their information every few months, and then conduct emergency notification tests so that individuals become accustomed to receiving the messages. Schools are required to do at least one all-campus test every year (typically in the fall semester when registration is highest) and also so that they can analyze the results to guide emergency communications the remainder of the school year. 85 percent success in reaching students is a positive step, but 100 percent is the ultimate goal.

Finally, certain emergency scenarios might only demand communication to a single campus or building, and avoiding mass panic or failing to get the right message to the right people can undermine your efforts.

2. Do I have student buy-in? 

Emergency communications cannot exist in a vacuum whereby administrators place the burden on students, faculty, and staff to set themselves up to receive phone, email, text and social media alerts – or even to understand how they can communicate back when emergency events occur.

A student orientation session at the beginning of every school year followed by ongoing campaigns throughout the year that communicate the value and reason why you will communicate with students is extremely valuable. These sessions should include a safety and security program along with easy tips on how to use the campus mass notification system. As intuitive as administrators think the system is, assume that for many students it won’t be obvious how to use all the features.

Buy-in also requires that students trust the emergency notification source. If they receive a text from an unrecognized SMS sender such as 45381 to avoid an area of campus due to a suspicious package, how can they know the sender and message content is authentic? Acclimating students on what types of messages they will receive and what information will be displayed ensures that they won’t tune out or ignore them.

3. Are you in-sync with how students communicate? 

MIT released a “fake news” study earlier this year finding that false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.

The MIT findings have far-reaching implications for school administrators; among the most damaging is how social media disinformation that spreads rapidly on Twitter and Facebook can disrupt your efforts to communicate effectively during an emergency event such as an active shooter report on campus.

Bottom line: recognize that students often turn to social media first when emergency events are unfolding, so you must leverage school social media handles to get ahead of misinformation. Students will often react to news that comes out first, whether fully vetted or not, so speed and accuracy are essential.

Misinformation can be incorrect (accidental vs. intentional), insufficient, outdated or opportunistic. Have a plan for social media misinformation that factors in how much time your students spend on social media.

4. Is your emergency communications plan proactive or reactive? 

Does your current emergency communications plan rely on manually creating notifications for each scenario? If shots are fired on campus, you can’t wait to locate the vice president of security to send or approve a notification.

Shifting to pre-packaged, approved messaging that is concise and ready to go when events occur transitions your plan from manually-intensive and reactive to automated and proactive. For this to work you must first lay out a clear process on who is authorized to send which messages, what type of approval each notification requires and how to capture feedback from students and others through two-way communication.

Finally, proactive emergency communications require a mass notification system that can geographically target a defined user group while also having the ability to scale to tens of thousands of users if necessary. Absent these capabilities, schools will lack the confidence to proactively communicate.

Emergency communications planning doesn’t begin and end as the school year gets underway. Answering these four questions will go a long way in determining if your strategy is in need of a refresh.

Ann Pickren is President of OnSolve, a leading global provider of SaaS-based critical communication solutions for enterprise, SMB and government customers.

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
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