Solutions to Your Common Emergency Notification Problems

Training, planning, policies, coordination with stakeholders ensure messages reach everyone.

Challenge: Crafting an Appropriate Alert
All of the experts interviewed by Campus Safety on this topic have developed prewritten emergency messages, but Burns warns that even when a campus takes this step, most situations do not meet the prewritten criteria. The messages must be modified on the fly.

“All the prewritten messages do is lessen the time it takes to put out a message,” he says. “It covers the major elements of what you want to say, but each incident is unique.”

Despite this, Burns believes it is better than spending valuable time word-smithing each emergency alert. “We’ve learned that there is no perfect message. You have to get something out that is clear, concise and meaningful.”

According to Houser, text-to-voice messages can pose problems if the person crafting the message isn’t trained on the system.

“Sometimes when you put in numbers, the computer doesn’t recognize them,” he says. “For voice messaging, you have to spell out the number, otherwise the message will say four billion, 250 million, etc. You also have to put commas after the numbers so the computer will slow down. Otherwise, it rattles off the numbers so quickly that you can’t understand them.

“‘Code triage’ is used in a hospital for disaster mass casualty notification,” continues Houser. “When the computer tries to pronounce it, it is a French word and it will come out almost unrecognizable.”

For initial emergency alerts, FSU takes a different approach. Instead of having prewritten messages for each type of hazard, the institution has two basic messages:

  1. For any human-caused, criminal situation that poses an imminent threat to health and safety: “FSU ALERT!* DANGEROUS SITUATION! Main Campus –  Tallahassee. Seek shelter immediately, away from doors and windows or 850-644-4636.”
  2. For any natural or technical situation that poses an imminent threat: “FSU ALERT!* HAZARDOUS CONDITION! Main Campus – Tallahassee. Seek shelter immediately, away from doors and windows or 850-644-4636.”

To support this approach, FSU has a robust branding and public relations program that educates students, faculty and staff on how to respond to
an emergency alert.

Bujak’s logic for this approach is: “What is the basic, minimum information you have to tell someone from the get go? An emergency is occurring, seek shelter and get more information. So effectively, all of our [initial] messages say that.”

The community then gets additional information from FSU’s Web site and subsequent messages.

Challenge: Managing the Message When the Media Is Involved

The media often get the jump on notifying the public about a developing situation, which could make a campus appear to be slow in issuing an alert. University of Southern California (USC) Department of Public Safety Captain David Carlisle, however, warns that journalists are in the breaking news business and that compared to a campus, they are not held to as high a standard regarding the accuracy of the information they convey.

“Quite often, frankly, their reports are inaccurate or speculative,” he says. “We have to be accurate because it could be a life or death situation. That’s going to take some time, but generally speaking, we issue a Trojans Alert as fast as the situation allows us. That could be five minutes, up to 30 minutes, depending on the situation.”

As an example, Carlisle recalls an incident that occurred earlier this year involving a suspicious package that was mailed to one of USC’s departments. It turned out to be an advertisement with a flashing red light in it, but before this was known, “We followed our normal protocols and notified the LAPD,” he says. “They responded with their bomb squad. LAPD policy dictates that they respond Code 3 (red lights and sirens).

“The media monitors those types of calls, and we had helicopters overhead very soon as the building was being evacuated. With a situation like that, people need to know, but we had to be accurate. The media was way out ahead of us on the notifications, but their information wasn’t accurate. We felt it was causing more harm than good.”

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About the Author

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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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