As the CIO at her university, Emma is expected to be the IT service provider of emergency notification, not only towards her institution’s Clery Act compliance, but also to support the institution’s goal of keeping its community as safe as possible. The institution is a large, public, research university, with tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff, so an on-premise solution seems unrealistic, given how taxing it would on the institution’s own infrastructure to initiate notifications for such a large constituency.
As Emma and her IT team, along with representatives from University Police, Public Relations, Risk Management, and General Counsel, search for the right technical solution to meet the institution’s emergency notification requirements, it soon becomes apparent to everyone that the technology is actually one of the easier components of this undertaking.
With the stakes as high as they can be, valuable lessons are learned, not only along the road towards the technical implementation, but also in terms of defining the actual policies, procedures, and roles surrounding this critical function. Learning from these lessons results in a robust, optimally effective emergency notification implementation and set of procedural best practices, keeping the institution’s community informed of threats to public safety and thus as out of harm’s way as possible.
Some of the hosted, or SaaS (Software as a Service), emergency notification solutions focus solely on text messaging, in the form of mobile phone text messaging, or Short Message Service (SMS), and email. While SMS/text might be the most reliable, scalable modality, it should not be the only one upon which your institution relies. With a broad range of available messaging options and notification technologies, providing a multimodal solution dramatically increases the chance of reaching more people sooner, not only because of the diversity of individual communication preferences/capabilities, but also because of the greater resiliency achieved in not relying on only one or two communication infrastructures. In addition to text, consider landline and cellular voice, indoor and outdoor loudspeakers/sirens, digital signage, websites, social media, and others. In addition, all of the modes should be controllable from a single console (or as few control points as possible) in order to reduce the time it takes to initiate a multimodal notification.
No spam! And, even if people opt in to receive non-emergency messages, “mixed messages” dilute the most important stuff. There are plenty of other mechanisms for non-emergency announcements, such as LISTSERVs and websites. Reserve your Emergency Notification System (ENS) for emergencies only, so people will treat those messages as having the utmost importance.
There is no time for a well-thought-out, well-crafted message during an emergency, so do that in advance and in the form of pre-approved templates for ease. You’ll want to establish a broad collection of templates, that account not only for all foreseeable emergency scenarios (e.g., active shooter, armed suspect, bomb threat, earthquake, flood, hazmat, hurricane, tornado, winter weather emergency, etc), but also for the various modalities (e.g., email, enunciated voice, text, tweet, etc). This also affords buy-in on the wording from all major stakeholders, from Legal to Public Relations to Risk. Choose an ENS that supports easily-used templates.
Just as wordsmithing an appropriate message from scratch is difficult during an emergency, trying to record a calm, cohesive voice message during an emergency can be equally challenging, and variable scenario specifics, such as location, prevent you from recording in advance, so leverage text-to-speech enunciation, which has come a long way. Some systems do support a pre- or sponsor-message, which can be recorded by a voice of authority, like “This is University Police Chief John Doe; please listen to this important alert.” This tends to add some credibility to the machine-generated message that follows.
This is the difference between having a near-100-percent subscriber base and a near-zero subscriber base. Default to having everyone signed up, for all modalities, and have them opt-out where they want. When their actions do not mimic their intentions, your constituents are far less vulnerable having not opted out vs. having not opted in.
Again, the technology is the easy (or at least easier) part. Fully developing and documenting your emergency notification policies and procedures, including identifying who is authorized to initiate notifications and who is trained in the mechanics of sending them, is critically important. Well-documented communication and marketing plans, testing procedures, and overall notification policies are critical to ensure consistent on-boarding, a verifiably functional system, and a clear understanding of when and how the system will be utilized.
Notifiers should literally test at the start of every shift by sending a test message to themselves, and those messages should never mock a real emergency scenario, just in case they somehow are distributed by accident. This regular testing ensures that notifiers have the access and the familiarity they need to competently and swiftly initiate a notification, and that the system, with all of its complex integrations, continues to function as expected.
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Mark Katsouros is the Director of Network Planning & Integration at the Pennsylvania State University. The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they just might be, as PSU is a pretty awesome institution.