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.

the campus community can be made aware of a threat. This is where schools would be unwise to rely solely on technology. There has to be an education component to emergency communication as well.

“We have a very robust informational campaign. We call it ‘Where to Go in Emergencies,’ and all faculty and students get a brochure, a wallet card and a magnet about what to do in various emergencies,” says Bagby.

For example, if there is a shooter on campus the protocol is “run, hide, fight.” If you can get out of the area, run. If you can’t, then hide and lock down. If the shooter confronts you, then fight back. Then call the emergency number to report the incident so dispatch officers can get information on the threat and respond accordingly. If the situation is something like a bomb threat where there may be no credible evidence to support the claim, police supervisors make the call on whether or not to issue an alert.

Lessons Learned

WUSTL has the ability to initiate cable TV override if an emergency is occurring on campus. When the school first implemented this emergency notification feature, an alert would take over students’ TV screens for 15 minutes.

“That was a problem. We’re telling them to tune into local media if they’re in the path of the storm so we had to go back to Alertus and have them build in a timer. Now if cable TV override is initiated it only lasts for three minutes and then it returns to normal programming,” says Bagby.

Another lesson the university learned early on was that text-to-voice is the best option for voice alerts through an outdoor speaker or fire alarm system. Fortunately, the university was aware of this before implementing its own system.

“If you have live voice, somebody has to pick up a microphone. They have to be trained on how to use it. They need to know to speak in a calm, slow and low voice so that people can actually hear and understand what happened,” says Bagby.

In an active situation when adrenaline is pumping and every second counts it’s unlikely anyone could perform those functions effectively. A pre-recorded message may also fall short because you can’t add details that may be pertinent to the situation unfolding. If there’s a fire in the building, you may need to tell staff and students which hallway or stairwell to avoid and which exits are safe.

“Text-to-speech is truly the best. It’s more reliable. You can modify it on the fly to whatever message you want. There’s an algorithm that makes sure it has the right pitch and slowness to it and it’s also built in so that your indoor voice versus your outdoor voice is going to be different due to acoustics and reverberation,” says Bagby.

The university also learned an “opt out” approach to text alerts is better than “opt in.” When the school first began building a mass notification system in 2007,

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