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.

its communication methods consisted solely of text and email notifications.

“After Virginia Tech happened we started seeing some of our holes. On
ly 10 percent of our population was opting in. We needed to make this mandatory so we switched to opt out,” says Bagby. “We use our HR system and our student information system as kind of a record or source of truth. When a student registers with us they have to put in a cellphone number and a local address. We already have all that information so why not use it?”

After switching to an “opt out” approach, WUSTL now has a 99 percent compliance rate for text and email notifications.

Assessing Your System

The university conducts a thorough after action review anytime its mass notification system is deployed or tested.

“We look at what worked and what didn’t work so we get feedback from faculty, staff, students and even visitors at times and if for some reason we are missing part of the population we look at how we can get to that population,” says Bagby.

For example, the computer labs at WUSTL are located in the basement. It quickly became apparent that students working in the labs did not have cellphone service and could not receive text alerts so the school decided to install desktop pop-ups. The pop-up alerts take over the computer screen no matter what the student is working on.

The review process brings together a committee that consists of members from the Public Affairs department, Campus Police, Emergency Management, IT, HR, Risk Management and Student Life.

“First we’re looking at were there any injuries or deaths or those ‘aha’ moments if something didn’t work or didn’t go right,” says Bagby. “Then it’s also looking at what did work and was effective.”

The committee reviews whether the campus community received the emergency alerts and whether they took the appropriate actions to ensure safety. For example, did students and staff go to the spot the notifications told them to? Did anyone ignore the message? What can the university do to prevent that? If for some reason a certain area of the campus didn’t get the message or wasn’t adequately notified, the committee will take steps to correct that. The solution may be something as simple as installing more desktop alerts or a few speakers at the end of a hallway. A mass notification system is always a work in progress.

“We go through those steps and then weigh the risks versus reward or the return on investment and them move it along from there,” says Bagby.

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