Planning Emergency Communications

Triggering a mass notification system kicks off a chain of emergency communications designed to bring in and help coordinate first responders, while also informing the community. A comprehensive communications strategy takes aim at a host of audiences: first responders, students, faculty, staff, parents, the surrounding community, and the media.

The goal is to inform and direct some audiences, while making sure that first responders have the facts they need to do their work without needlessly endangering themselves.

Jason Friedberg, chief of public safety at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, recommends writing emergency notification messages ahead of time. In the case of an active shooter, for instance, the initial alert for students, faculty, and staff might say something like: gunshots reported in dining hall; shelter in place.

After the communications officer takes the call reporting gunfire, he or she can access the alert in the mass notification system, add the location, and send it on its way. Consult with the police about developing emergency alert messages for various kinds of incidents.

At Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia, the Public Safety Department issues the first alert as a text message.

“Text messaging is the first tool we go to in our suite of communication tools,” says David Tedjeske, Villanova’s director of Public Safety. “We’ll send a brief, to-the-point text message reporting the event and, if necessary, advising people to take some action — to shelter in place or to avoid an area.”

A few minutes later, continues Tedjeske, another text message, as well as blast emails and voice calls, repeats the initial message and directs recipients to a website that will provide details as the facts are confirmed. When the website issues an update, Tedjeske’s communications officer sends a follow-up text message informing people that more information is now available at the website.

Tedjeske also points out that parents can subscribe to Villanova’s mass notification system and, when text message alerts go out, parents will receive them as well. “Because parents receive alerts, the messages have to be clear and accurate,” he says. “Otherwise the number of phone calls coming in will go up exponentially.”

Staying Online
During an emergency, phone traffic and Internet traffic can knock phone systems and websites offline. You need to develop a strategy to keep the lines of communication online.

“We have an emergency phone bank that we can activate in the event of a large-scale emergency,” Tedjeske says. “We send current information to the people taking the calls. Once it is up and running, we advise people of the number. The system enables us to put out a single emergency phone number for people to call and to take the load off of our dispatcher.”

At Bucknell, Friedberg uses a dark website to ensure access to information about an emergency. “Increased traffic will knock our campus website offline almost immediately during an emergency,” he says. “Like many universities, we’ve set up a dark website that we activate in an emergency. It has plenty of servers so it can handle the traffic. It provides emergency contacts and up-to-date information about an event.”

Communicating With First Responders

Calls to first responders may go out just before or just after the initial mass notification is made. “When you send out an alert, whether to police, firefighters, or EMTs, you must make sure to tell them exactly what they will be getting into,” says Friedberg.

Suppose a caller phones the campus public safety department to report an active shooter. The communications officer who takes the call must know how to question the caller to get the most accurate, most complete information possible. Where did this happen? Is anyone hurt? What was the shooter wearing? Was it a man or woman? How old? Where is the person now?

Again, learn from police, firefighters, and EMTs what they need to know about various emergency situations, and ask those questions.

“Most campus safety departments have well-established protocols for alerting first responders, whether the police, fire, or EMS,” says Tedjeske. “Ideally, a campus should have direct radio communication with local police or the 911 center.”

Tedjeske notes that some 911 agencies refuse to allow non-sworn campus safety departments access to a police frequency.

Sometimes the local jurisdiction will make an accommodation for institutional needs, continues Tedjeske. In Philadelphia, for instance, colleges, universities, and hospitals use a designated radio frequency that 911 agencies monitor.

Villanova is in suburban Philadelphia, and its non-sworn public safety department must dial 911 to call for help. “This is a huge issue,” Tedjeske says. “In a disaster, call centers can be swamped with calls, and I worry about getting through. We have been able to make arrangements with the police to monitor our frequency on their radios. But we can’t make a direct radio call to them.”

The Surrounding Community

Some emergencies — such as an active shooter — may spill over into neighborhoods bordering the campus. In such cases, it becomes important to inform surrounding communities about the emergency and, if necessary, provide information about how to stay safe.

Colleges and universities don’t really have the communications resources to do that. But Tedjeske says that there is an emergency communication system that can help. “It’s called Nixle.com,” he says. “You go to the Nixle.com website and sign up. You’ll receive emergency alerts from your local police department and other local municipal agencies.”

According to the Nixle website, local public agencies use Nixle as a publishing system for emergency alerts and other information. When you enter your mobile phone number and your ZIP code on the Nixle site, Nixle will send local information to you in the form of text messages.

What about informing the media? At Bucknell, a public information officer studies reports coming in from the field and holds regular news briefings.

From Start to Finish
Friedberg summarizes Bucknell’s approach to emergency communications by running through what he calls the A-I-R philosophy.

The “A” stands for Alert. “Our first communication is one or another of a dozen or so canned alert messages,” Friedberg says.

“I” is for Inform. “No more than 10 minutes after the Alert message goes out, we put out more comprehensive information and directions,” he continues. “This communication might say something like: ‘Shooting on campus. Shelter in place.’ If the event continues to evolve, we’ll remain in the Inform phase.”
As the emergency comes to a close, communications move into the “R,” or Reassurance phase, Friedberg says. This communication might say something like: “Gunman arrested. Shelter in place is no longer necessary. If you’ve left campus, it is safe to return.”

Practice Communicating
“Practice is the best way to coordinate the emergency response of the campus and community,” says Tedjeske. “We recently held a large-scale mass casualty drill on campus. We brought in police, firefighters, and EMTs to work on a simulated roof collapse at our Pavilion.

“The local hospitals participated, and we transported 80 patients to four area hospitals. We also set up our emergency phone bank and had people call in with panicky questions. Near the end of the drill, we held a simulated press conference with media relations staffers asking questions.”

Conducting periodic drills that test communications plans as well as overall emergency response capabilities isn’t just a good idea; it’s the law.

In 2008, Congress amended the Jeanne Clery Act and included provisions requiring written policies covering emergency response and evacuation procedures. The Act also says that the statement must include procedures that would be used to notify the campus community immediately in an emergency or dangerous situation.

Furthermore, the amended Clery Act requires publicizing emergency response and evacuation procedures annually and conducting annual live tests to evaluate and upgrade procedures.

“There are always unexpected problems,” Tedjeske says. “Reviewing those problems and finding solutions will make the next response better.” 

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