The Complexity of Mass Notification

When there is a crisis on campus, no matter where the student is at that time, it is imperative that he or she be notified of impending danger. Without a well-planned mass notification system, coupled with proper procedures, the campus opens itself up to legal liability and financial exposure as well as potentially bad PR.

To better understand what is needed and the current state of mass notifications, Siemens undertook a detailed analysis of U.S. colleges and universities, taking a hard look at information provided to the government as part of the Clery Act. The company released the results in October in a white paper.

The Clery Act is a federal mandate requiring all institutions of higher education that participate in federal financial aid to disclose information about crime on their campuses and in surrounding communities.

“A multitude of communications tools are available today to instantaneously and simultaneously send messages and alerts to large groups of people. However, no one tool is capable of reaching everyone at once. Comprehensive, multi-modal mass notification systems that incorporate various layers of messaging and are managed from a single command center are the most effective way to reach the maximum number of people and ensure consistency of message,” the Siemens white paper stated.

Public and private colleges and universities are affected by the mandates of the Clery Act, and failure to comply can result in fines and sanctions on the federal level. In 2010, there were 77 Clery Reports filed, coming from 34 private, 31 public and 12 community colleges in each region of the United States. Enrollments also ranged from 1,000 to as many as 100,000 students.

The report seemed to indicate that community colleges are least likely to implement a layered, emergency notification system, with 75 percent of the community colleges ranking at level 1 or 2. Level 1 is a rudimentary system with the most simplistic emergency notification capabilities, generally consisting of a nonlayered approach with less than three modalities in one or two categories. Level 2 is multi-dimensional where a non-layered approach to emergency communications incorporates between four and six different modalities in one or two categories.

The categories include:

  • At your side. The use of SMS/text, e-mail, voicemail, call-in emergency hotline, university website, internal portal or blog.
  • Inside. Use of a public address system, digital signage, desktop alerting, tone alert radios, voice-enabled fire alarm panels or posted notices.
  • Outside. Outdoor public address system, warning sirens, mobile loud-speakers on vehicles, blue light towers and outdoor emergency phones.
  • Extended. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and others, and CCTV.

Sixty-one percent of public universities ranked as a level 3 or 4, with several modes of communication that can easily and effectively reach students, faculty, staff, administrators and visitors. Only one public school was rated as a level 1, relying on SMS/ text, e-mail and voicemail to communicate with those people on campus. All remaining schools used between four to 12 notification modalities on campus.

There also appears to be a direct correlation between size of campus and the sophistication of the mass notification system. Bigger schools generally have more complex notification systems in place. Private schools are about right in the middle of the road with their implementation of notification systems. Of those schools analyzed, 70 percent were rated as Level 2 or 3, meaning they had moderately sophisticated systems in place.

The highest level of sophistication was found in southern states with the largest number of schools rating Level 4 of any region. The South also had the most mature mass notification systems in place; and 29 percent of the schools in the region used a layered approach that includes all modes in all four categories. Nearly half of the schools use Twitter and Facebook to communicate during emergencies.

“School enrollments range from 1,000 to upwards of 100,000 students at the college and university campuses reviewed in the study. Not surprisingly, there appears to be a direct correlation between the size of the school and the sophistication of the mass notification systems in use,” the study noted.

“Among the schools analyzed, those with enrollments of more than 8,000 students are more likely to have multi-layered notification systems. Twenty-one percent of universities in this category ranked as Level 4, as compared to only 10 percent of schools with less than 8,000 students enrolled,” the study concluded.

Digital signage seemed to be less prevalent on college campuses, though 77 percent of the colleges and universities in the study indicated the use of outdoor systems to alert people on campus of an imminent threat. The most widely used outdoor modality is the blue light/outdoor emergency phones, which are available on 60 percent of campuses reviewed. Nearly 25 percent of all campuses reviewed use an outdoor warning siren and public address systems.

Universities and colleges have a wide array of options that can be used for communication at each of their communities during an emergency. Few of the campuses actually demonstrated the type of comprehensive, multi-layered system that is critical to reach the masses when there is a crisis. The most widespread method is the Web-based alerting system as well as short message services, texts, mass e-mails, voicemail blasts, website postings and the use of social media. These all work well, but they have to be turned on, and if any factor such as a power failure or a wireless network failure arises, the message won’t be delivered.

The security and safety of students, faculty and staff is of the utmost importance. The right protocols and technology must be in place to be effective and provide the ability to communicate with everyone.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Security Products.

About the Author

Ralph C. Jensen is editor-in-chief of Security Today magazine.


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