Selecting ENS Systems

Most mid-sized and large public K-12 school systems and many independent K-12 schools have had some form of emergency notification system (ENS) in place for several years. Though some institutions of higher learning have also had these systems in place, most colleges and universities began acquiring similar systems only last year. With more than 60 vendors now in the marketplace and new features being developed on an almost weekly basis, it can be difficult to select a system that is the best match for a particular institution. While there are detailed topical papers available on the subject, most have been prepared by ENS vendors and, of course, provide information leaning readers to that particular vendor’s system. While these papers are well worth reading and do contain lots of useful information, there are other valuable ways to augment information provided by vendors.

The following key points may help in evaluating ENS options.

Price
Different vendors use different pricing strategies. This sometimes makes it difficult to accurately compare features. Carefully wording bid solicitations can help provide a more accurate comparison of vendors. It is a good idea to shop features from a number of vendors before the bid solicitation is finalized to ensure that all the features desired have been identified. As with any other safety measure, cost should never be the sole determining factor in the decision to purchase a particular ENS product. As we have seen with numerous campus crisis situations, being pennywise can truly be pound foolish when cost is a consideration that is out of balance with quality, reliability, and effectiveness.

Vendor Stability
The surge of institutions of higher education and other organizations in implementing ENS has created a number of new entrants to the ENS field. Some of these companies are large and fiscally sound corporations that have operated in relevant fields for many years, while others will likely no longer sell ENS in two to three years, or possibly less. I was asked to evaluate an ENS service provider a few years ago, only to learn that it was run out of a private residence. Campus officials should make sure the service provider is likely to still be in business when they are needed for a crisis.
 
Pushout Rate
Some systems are far more capable at pushing out high-volume call rates than others. While this may not be as critical for a college with a few hundred students, it could quickly become an issue for Penn State, Columbia, or UCLA. Carefully consider the pushout rate if that is a critical issue for your specific situation.

Ease Of Use Under Stress
As mentioned in other columns, the deterioration of fine and complex motor skills under extreme stress makes the manner in which fields can be used important. Simple things like font size are important. If a system is confusing when you are practicing with it during a demo, it will probably be extremely difficult for staff to use in an actual crisis event.
 
Auxiliary Features
The reality of campus organization budgets means that many ENS purchases are driven less by their emergency communications capabilities than they are by non-emergency features that can make the campus operation easier and more efficient on a day-to-day basis. While this is obviously a logical train of thought, it is important to make sure there is balance in the evaluation process. Some ENS providers score high on these auxiliary services at the price of emergency notification capability. The selection process should focus on identification of ENS systems that fit the needs of the campus organization best in both emergency and non-emergency matters. Different vendors often provide a better match for different campus markets.

How the ENS Will Integrate With Other Methods
Most colleges, universities, and technical colleges will use other means to notify the campus community of emergency situations to augment ENS systems. This means it is important to consider how particular ENS options will work to complement other emergency communications networks.

Selection of a solid ENS can dramatically improve the capability of a campus organization to effectively address emergency situations. While it can be difficult to sort through the crowded field of ENS providers, you can use due diligence and a thoughtful bid process to select the best system for your organization.

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens Website at www.safehavensinternational.org.


About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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