Colleges Must Remain Vigilant With Their Emergency Alert Programs

Many college and university officials are breathing a little easier now that the reauthorized Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEA) does not include the 30-minute notice provision. Still, no one should get too comfortable.

On Aug. 14, President Bush signed into law the Higher Education Opportunity Act (see “30-Minute Notification Requirement Not Included in HEOA Reauthorization” on page 8). Much to the relief of campus officials, the law was not amended to require universities and colleges to issue warnings within 30 minutes of an emergency. The problems with the proposed requirement were many. The money and manpower needed to implement 30-minute notifications would have taken precious resources away from the responses to the initial threats or problems. Another possible consequence would have been an increase in false alarms.

So can we relax now? I think not. The version of the HEOA that passed requires immediate notification, but the definition of “immediate” isn’t clear. In fact, in some cases it could be construed to mean less than 30 minutes. Also, a new bill including the 30-minute provision might still be introduced in Congress.

Regardless of what happens, campuses should have learned an important lesson. Hopefully, what has been going on in Washington this past year and a half has taught us that mass notification/emergency alert systems and the policies and personnel supporting them must continue to be a high priority. If we don’t remain vigilant, the federal or state governments (or both) will most likely legislate how campuses and their public safety departments communicate to their communities during an emergency.

Considering that every campus (and incident) is different, a cookie-cutter approach that would most likely result from a government mandate could spell disaster. Worst case scenario: In the rush to get out a speedy notification, misinformation might be disseminated that leads to confusion and/or unnecessary injuries or fatalities. Although this portrayal might seem like fear mongering to some, it describes a real challenge campuses could face.

So what should higher education institution officials do to make sure Congress or state legislatures don’t tie their hands and put the community at greater risk? When appropriate, respond to an incident as if that 30-minute requirement were law. You might not be able to abide by that unwritten rule every time, and in some cases you shouldn’t. But it’s a good habit to adopt.

Being vigilant, however, does not only apply to mass notification. Are your sworn and nonsworn public safety officers properly trained and armed? Is your campus appropriately sharing information about at-risk individuals? Are you making the necessary improvements to your institution’s access control systems (both physical and logical)? How is your campus handling sexual assaults, and drug and alcohol abuse? What about CCTV? Is it being properly maintained and upgraded? Are your disaster preparedness plans up to date? And don’t forget about your campus’ mental health services. Does your college or university have the personnel it needs?

Protecting a college or university involves a lot of moving parts and requires the appropriate allocation of resources. It is in every campus’ best interest to have all of these parts functioning properly and working together. If they don’t, we run this risk of others who are well-meaning but ill-informed imposing requirements on our industry that are completely ill-suited to campus protection.

To a great extent then, what happens next depends on us.

For additional information on emergency alert solutions, policies and procedures, visit CS’ Mass Notification Center.

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Robin Hattersley Gray is executive editor of Campus Safety. She can be reached at


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About the Author

robin hattersley headshot

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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