Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)
Managing Mass Notification
- By Michael Fickes
- May 1st, 2015
PHOTO © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/PASTORSCOTT
One day on a large college campus, a student called security to report seeing a man with a gun. The security team activated the mass notification system and ordered a campus-wide lockdown.
But the message failed to reach a high percentage of individuals on campus because many individuals had not registered in the system. Officials turned to their public address system, which didn’t cover all of the buildings on campus.
Such problems may arise more than you would expect.
“I’ve visited a number of campuses where no one knows how to use the mass note system,” says Paul Timm, president of Lemont, ILbased RETA Security, Inc. “Many students, faculty and staff have not been registered in the system, and no one has learned how to use it.
“So the first steps to managing a mass notification system are learning to use it and registering the community.”
It’s not good enough for one person to learn the system, either, continues Timm. A number of people should know how to use it. If someone were absent, a backup operator would have to step in.
Don’t forget nights and weekends. A couple people that are around on nights and weekends should know how send out notifications as well.
Qualified operators will know how to select the appropriate message from pre-recorded messages about various emergencies. They will know how to send the messages by text, phone and email. Each operator must practice using the system to maintain skills, too. Operators that don’t practice risk getting it wrong when an emergency occurs.
Don’t practice on the community by sending non-emergency messages over the system. People should realize that something serious might be happening when they receive an alarm from the mass notification system.
“If you send out too many non-urgent messages, it can be like crying wolf,” says Rick Thompson, a security consultant with RETA, who serves as the information security administrator and former chief of public safety at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. “You can hold drills twice a year. Other than that, don’t use the mass notification system for anything but emergencies.”
Register the Community
A survey conducted several years ago found that on average, 50 percent of students do not register their phone numbers and email addresses with their school’s mass notification system. While that average may be better today, the point is that you must develop a campaign to register as many people as possible.
“Today, students do everything online,” Timm observes. “The way to register students for the mass notification system is to make them register their phones and email addresses in the mass notification system before letting them register for class.”
Faculty and staff typically register at low percentages, too, Timm notes. He recommends a policy that requires registering with the system before issuing credentials such as access control cards or campus ID cards. Tie registering to something they cannot do without.
“There are also outside entities on most college campuses,” Timm says. “There might be a daycare center, churches, the bookstore and so on. These folks must register their phones as well. You
need a strategy here, too.
“If you run a campus-wide mass notification registration campaign, you will have a side benefit of helping to improve everyone’s security awareness.”
Even when you have done your utmost to register the community, don’t forget other communication tools available today, especially Twitter, other social media, email and your school’s website.
“I would also suggest getting parents phone numbers and email, too,” says Ron Lander, CPP, CMAS, principal with Norco, CA-based Ultrasafe Security Specialists. “You can do that during registration by asking students who to notify in the event of an emergency or potential emergency.”
One more point about registration: update the information regularly. “People are always getting new smartphones and changing phone numbers,” Lander says. “You have to update frequently.”
Lander recommends taking a cue from retailers. Best Buy, for instance, checks customer information when customers use their rewards card. The cashier always asks whether the telephone number and address in the store’s records are correct.
Security professionals all recommend pre-recording messages. That way, you can plan for what instructions you want to deliver, how best to word the message and the tone you want to strike During an emergency, you won’t have time to think. Moreover, a mistake during a fire or violent incident could prove deadly.
Recorded messages should cover the incidents involving imminent danger: an active shooter, a fire, weather events and so on. Be sure to add alerts for gas leaks and other kinds of serious maintenance problems. Develop messages that cover incidents from various points of view. For instance, “a person with a gun seen near the library” presents a situation that could develop into a shooting. A message such as “shots fired near the library” alerts people to an active shooting event.
Don’t overdo the messages. “Keep the idea of imminent danger in mind,” says Thompson. “Is someone going to be injured? If not, don’t use the mass notification system.
“Suppose, for instance, there is a report of an unauthorized person on campus. You don’t know if the person is a threat. A security officer should investigate, but you shouldn’t use the mass notification system because there is no imminent danger.”
Thompson also recommends considering the geography or context and time. If there is a shooting down the street from a school in Chicago, the community should know about it. On the other hand, if a school is a mile away in a suburban neighborhood, it doesn’t matter.
Finally, there is the element of time. “If a robbery just happened on or near campus, put out an alert,” Thompson says. “If it happened more than 30 minutes ago, inform the campus community with email.
In the end, a well-managed, well-drilled mass communication system makes a powerful safety and security tool for a college or university campus.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.