Making Safety Plans Actionable with Mass Notification

Getting people to act during an emergency should be a top priority of safety planning, and mass notification is key.

Making Safety Plans Actionable with Mass Notification

(Photo: Brownfalcon, Adobe Stock)

Creating a safe campus is dependent upon the plans campus leaders have put in place to protect students and staff should an emergency occur. Many campuses invest large amounts of time and resources into creating these plans, but once they are created, what happens to those plans?

Often, plans are created and left to sit, either in a binder or on a computer, until the need arises from the plans to be put into use. Developing plans can simply be seen as checking a box without analyzing if the plan is effective in getting people to do the most important thing during an emergency: take action. All the planning in the world isn’t worth a thing unless people are able to receive, understand and follow the steps of the plan that are most pertinent to them.

Most safety plans revolve around sharing information. People need to know an event is taking place and what they should be doing. While knowing who needs to receive emergency alerts and how they will receive them may seem like basic components of a safety plan, having confidence that the right message will reach the right people in a way that communicates the urgency of the situation is another matter entirely.  

Too often, campuses rely on passive alerting methods, like mass SMS text messaging or emails, that put the onus on the recipient to know that an alert has been sent. This can limit the effectiveness of the message to spur people to action. Text messages are only effective if recipients do not have their phone on silent or are checking their phones the moment a notification is sent out. In campus settings, if students or professors are in class, they likely do not have a ringer on and are not checking their phones on a regular basis. This means precious time is wasted waiting for people to realize an emergency is happening.

To overcome this issue with mobile phones, some campuses have implemented additional tools to share alerts to fill the gaps they have identified. However, this can pose another problem. The more tools a campus integrates into its safety plans, the more people are needed to oversee managing those tools. This adds steps and creates silos, which can lead to people missing messages because someone forgot to activate a particular tool in the heat of a crisis. Disconnected technology also runs the risk of putting out inconsistent messaging because different people are crafting different language to share information. This can lead to confusion which can hinder people from taking action because they don’t fully understand what is happening or what they are expected to do.

That’s why many campuses are turning to mass notification systems to help. Mass notification can connect technology already in place on many campuses, eliminating silos and consolidating management to make it easy to trigger messages that are intrusive and urge people to act. With a single system, campuses can activate audio and text alerts that are delivered to desk phones, IP speakers, desktop computers, digital signage, mobile phones and more.

By using text and audio, campuses have a greater chance of interrupting ongoing activities and capturing people’s attention so they stop what they are doing, comprehend what is being communicated, and begin taking action. Using a single system to send out messages also helps ensure that messages are consistent, reducing confusion so people spend less time asking questions and more time responding to the instructions they have been given. This helps people evacuate buildings, shelter in place, avoid dangerous areas, and take other actions that keep them out of harm’s way. Mass notification systems can also automate certain actions, relieving even more of the burden from administrators and increasing the speed at which campuses can respond to a disaster.

Mass Notification and IoT

In addition to the communication tools a mass notification system can connect to, it can also connect to other Internet of Things (IoT) devices that a campus might implement to help with safety. Electronic door locks, security cameras, and even lighting can all be connected and configured to take automated actions when an alert is triggered. This could include locking doors in a particular building or floor, sending a link to a live camera feed from where an alert was triggered, or shutting off or turning on lights. Automating these actions can enhance safety and save safety teams time so they can focus on helping resolve the situation taking place.

Resolving an emergency can also be an inefficient and slow process. Getting the right people together to assess a situation and determine the best course of action can be challenging without the right tools in place to direct people on where they should go and what tasks they should be in charge of. With the ability to designate different groups, messages can be sent out to safety team members with invitations to join virtual collaboration spaces like Webex, Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or a conference call. The goal is to make this process as easy as possible for people to do what they are supposed to be doing during an emergency. Delivering information directly with clear instructions and easy to access links means issues are addressed quickly and all safety measures can be executed.

Returning to Normal Operations After an Emergency Using Mass Notification

While delivering effective messages during an emergency is important, any kind of crisis is going to cause disruptions. Being able to return operations to normal helps keep campuses running smoothly. The same steps a campus uses to alert people about a situation can also be used to let people know a situation has ended. Given that a crisis may cause people to scatter, getting people back to where they are supposed to be and doing the activities they were doing prior to the emergency taking place can be challenging.

To minimize delays, mass notification systems can deliver messages that let people know that the danger has passed, and they should resume normal activities. This again helps reduce confusion and gives people on campus confidence that campus officials have been on top of the situation from start to finish.

Mass notifications can help in the moment, and they can help with the actions that need to be taken in the future. Many mass notification systems are evolving to include critical event management features that help campuses deal with emergencies from start to finish. This includes delivering after-action reports so campus officials can determine what worked and what didn’t. It also includes examining how effective messages were and what adjustments need to be made in either the language or method of delivery to ensure people are responding as quickly as possible during a crisis. Campuses can identify areas where messages weren’t delivered or where certain steps were not followed. This helps create a more comprehensive and successful safety plan.

Ultimately, campuses need to keep the idea of getting people to act at the forefront of their safety planning. It’s easy to forget that this is the goal to strive for with all the other elements that go into creating and executing a plan. Mass notification systems that offer intrusive delivery methods via a wide range of devices can help create a safer and more efficient campus.

Paul Shain is President and CEO of Singlewire Software, developers of InformaCast.

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