In Higher Ed Emergency Communications, Policy Comes Before Technology

The director of emergency management at Washington University in St. Louis talks about what to do before the RFP.

Mass notification takes more than technology to be successful. It takes careful planning, a comprehensive emergency communications policy and sophisticated understanding of your intended audience. This is especially true of colleges and universities that have multiple campuses or very diverse populations they need to reach. This is the case at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), where the school recently won an award for its emergency communications solution.

“We’re very decentralized. We have six campuses and seven major schools,” says Mark Bagby, director of Emergency Management at WUSTL.

The school uses a number of technologies for mass notification including digital signage, outdoor sirens, text-to-voice, email, SMS messaging and desktop pop-up alerts. Of its six campuses, one is a medical school that may have patients on-site. Unlike the staff and students in the school, their contact information is not readily available. If an emergency were taking place on campus, a mass text or email would do nothing to notify those patients of danger.

“That’s one of the reasons we have such a multimodal system. By using digital signage and then also by using voice we can reach those populations,” says Bagby.

The university’s disparate technologies are coordinated through Alertus, which provides the school’s alert beacons, desktop alerts, digital signage and cable TV override capabilities. The digital signage piece is an assortment of indoor LCD screens powered by Four Winds Interactive software. Because Washington University is decentralized, individual schools choose the displays that hang in their buildings. There is no university-wide standard.

“The screen itself doesn’t matter. What matters is the software behind it and that’s where we try to get the standardization,” says Bagby.

The school can also tap into the National Weather Service’s feed using the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP). Emergency alert messaging is published to digital signage using an RSS feed. Text and email alerts are delivered via Everbridge, a mass notification software platform.

Think Policy Before Technology

Behind this impressive array of technology is a comprehensive emergency communications policy that clearly defines alert protocol. Before you send out an RFP for your own system, you need to answer a few questions:

  • Have you developed an emergency notification policy?
  • What technology are you thinking of using? Do you want to standardize?
  • Who has the ability to set off the system? Who is authorized to send out a message?
  • Who has control of the system?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you need to conduct a hazards assessment to identify the types of emergencies you need to prepare for. If you’re located in the Midwest, maybe you’re concerned with tornados. If you’re on a fault line, then earthquakes are a risk. A college located in a major city needs to worry about crime. An open campus might be concerned with intruders.

“You need to do a needs assessment to build your system instead of building your system and then trying to make your system work to your needs,” says Bagby.

Sending Out Alerts

The WUSTL system is operated via an online dashboard that has a series of check boxes you can use to select the mass notification technologies you want to deploy. This system is provided by Alertus and the virtual “easy button” feature was a major component of university’s RFP. As a result, alert deployment times have been greatly reduced.

Who issues an alert and how it is disseminated may depend upon the situation. At WUSTL, County Emergency Management activates the school’s sirens in a weather related emergency.

“We don’t have a weather center on campus. We don’t have meteorologists on staff. We’re not going to interpret the weather to see if something needs to be sent out in terms of a tornado alert,” says Bagby.

The National Weather Service sends out alerts to entities like County Emergency Management. Since the university’s outdoor sirens are tied into the county’s network, if an alert is issued, the school’s system picks up on keywords and sets off the outdoor sirens that issue a pre-scripted message.

“It takes the human factor out,” says Bagby. If the automated process should fail, university dispatchers can trigger an alert from the dashboard.

Events like an active shooter have no real warning and a situation needs to be reported before

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