- By Janet Wiens
- August 1st, 2010
The ability to successfully communicate emergency messages to students, faculty, staff, and visitors with disabilities is vitally important. From sharing weather alerts to information about emergency situations on campus, facility personnel must look at the range of needs required by all constituents.
Installing and maintaining the optimum equipment and services requires that persons with disabilities are involved in the planning and design stages relative to emergency communications systems, and that they are involved in their ongoing testing and evaluation.
Understanding the Need
Dr. Carolyn Bailey Lewis is director and general manager for the WOUB Center for Public Media at Ohio University in Athens. Her perspective as both a staff member and a person with a disability gives her a special sensitivity regarding the requirements.
“The needs of every campus are different,” said Lewis. “Facility personnel must look beyond the visual to take into account a range of disabilities, some of which are not easy to identify, such as chronic illnesses or learning disabilities.”
Lewis says that developing emergency communications plans and their associated equipment for persons with disabilities requires two main components. The first is to make certain that persons representing that population are involved in planning and design efforts. The second is to have disabled individuals register with the appropriate campus office so that facility staff members know where they are in the event of an emergency.
Understanding what the actual needs are relative to a variety of disabilities is paramount to developing the optimum program, according to Dick Planlanisek, director of facility planning and space management at Ohio University. “Following the codes and standards often isn’t enough,” he said. “You must evaluate and understand the breadth of needs on your campus.”
Planlanisek and Lewis agree that emergency communications must feature multiple components, including text and voice alerts, computer messaging, audio and visual messages, and other equipment. Once equipment and systems are selected, they must be continually evaluated and augmented as required to meet changing needs.
Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, is the only university in the world where all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The campus is home to elementary, high school, and college students on a 99-acre campus with 41 buildings.
“Visual communication is obviously a key component in our emergency communication program,” said Dr. Meloyde R. Batten-Mickens, director/chief, department of public safety, facilities and transportation. “The approach at our or any institution must be multi-layered.”
Gallaudet has always incorporated text communication into its efforts since the technology became available. As technology has changed, facility personnel at the University have built off of or tied into existing systems in order to maximize efficiency and to spend financial resources as wisely as possible.
“You must hit everyone at some point, and your messages must be both visual and succinct,” said Batten-Mickens. “Trust is also a very important factor, and you must have that to be successful.”
The emergency communications strategy at Gallaudet includes 5,000 strobes and other emergency lighting, two evacuation chairs, digital signage, computer and TV messaging, and text messages delivered via personal communication devices.
“Our approach is comprehensive and includes personnel from facilities, IT, residential life, administration, and those with disabilities,” said Batten-Mickens. “The technology that we have is important, but the personal and personnel component ensure that we use what we have as efficiently as possible.”
When it comes to the equipment itself, Batten-Mickens says that there are many great systems on the market and that advances are continually being made. She encourages facility personnel to take advantage of demonstrations and to talk to their peers. “Remember when you are evaluating equipment to keep the dispatcher in mind. Consider how much they can execute with ease and drill, drill, drill.”
The final piece, according to Batten-Mickens, is to partner with local public safety officials. They must understand an institution’s program and capabilities and should have a clear picture of the population on campus that has disabilities.
“You need to have both internal and external components to your emergency communications system,” said Ted Milburn, vice president of marketing for Cooper Notification, a platform of Cooper Industries. “It is important to conduct a risk analysis and to develop or add to your solutions based on that information.”
Mass notification systems (MNS) provide an integrated multi-layered approach with indoor, outdoor, text, voice, and desktop alerting. An MNS allows users to deliver live or recorded event-specific instructions to voice-based sirens, indoor and outdoor speakers, cell phones, and desktop computers. MNS and other products are offered by Cooper and a number of other companies to address and fulfill the multi-layered communication requirements of those with disabilities.
“The ideal approach is to make the emergency communication plan and its systems part of the institution’s overall facility plan,” Milburn said. “Acts relative to emergency communications are changing. Integrating, coordinating, and continually evaluating and updating both plans is very important.”
Milburn added that there are several important considerations: the financial investment, deployment, the type(s) of notification, and handling upgrades and maintenance. He recommended that facility personnel leverage their existing systems to use available infrastructure whenever possible, and that they partner with IT and other staff to develop the best approach.
Interoperability, the ability to tie disparate systems together, is available and should be investigated if not already in use. Technology will continue to evolve, and successfully selecting, maintaining, and optimizing the solution requires involving persons with disabilities in the decisions that are made, having a multi-layered approach, and continual evaluation.