Getting The Message
How the Blue Hens manage emergency notification on campus
- By Marcia Nickle
- May 28, 2009
Safety on campus continues to be a concern for colleges and universities across the country. With legislative updates associated with the Clery Act passed last year, and violent events across the United States once again threatening campus safety, the need for security and safety awareness on campus has not diminished. Having a rapid, reliable means of communication can mean better coordination across campus during a crisis and the protection of students, faculty and staff.
The University of Delaware has implemented a mass notification system to support campus safety and security, and to date, has not had to use the system for an emergency situation. When the university needed to select a system to notify its students and staff in the event of an emergency, officials wanted a state-of-the-art solution. Selection criteria for the university’s alert emergency notification system included a system that was user friendly, sent messages via voice and text to a variety of communications devices and worked rapidly and reliably. The university also has four campuses, as well as teaching facilities overseas -- so the ability to reach anyone, anywhere, at any time was a key consideration.
With a main campus that spreads across the city of Newark, Delaware, and three additional unique geographic campus locations -- urban, maritime and agricultural -- the university wanted a way to quickly and effectively reach its students and staff to ensure their safety and security. In a true emergency, the university uses every means available to reach students, faculty and staff at their contact numbers. UD’s intent is for individuals to receive the message multiple ways so no matter where a student is, he or she will receive vital, critical information quickly.
Communication is Key
Any person who has worked in emergency management or business continuity knows that communication is the keystone to any successful initiative. In this case, good, clear and quick communication can be the difference to saving the lives of students, faculty and staff, and ensuring that a situation is resolved rapidly.
UD chose Send Word Now as its mass notification provider. The university also had extended use of the system to include local businesses tangent to the university, the Newark Fire Department and the Newark Police Department. The self-update features in the system have been beneficial with regard to reducing administrative overhead and managing various points of contact. The university wanted something so all stakeholders could manage their own information to eliminate the need to hunt people down to verify contact information.
Since staff and students may travel between campuses throughout the day, it is important that each is tied to various systems within the university. One of the benefits of the system is the ability to notify students by campus, building or residence hall.
The Power of the Process
The selection process for a notification provider can involve many stakeholders. UD officials took several steps to ensure that the emergency-alert solution would meet its needs. First, UD put together a committee to work on the project that included representatives from various departments, including key stakeholders for the system. Representatives from public safety, residence life, IT, procurement and university administration were involved in the process. Getting all departments on board the first day helped ensure that UD had a tool that would work best for the university and its diverse constituents.
The next step was to decide what features of a system were important and develop a specification list. UD included a list of must haves and a wish list. The difference wish list contained features UD would love to have but that were not crucial. Once features of the system were identified, the university conducted thorough research and requested proposals. This will allow an organization to become familiar with many different vendor systems and capabilities.
It is important that organizations take the necessary time to implement the program and get to know the vendors they are working with. Figure out what data will be uploaded to the system and how that will occur. Ask questions along the way. Finally, have a point person coordinating all of the details. Even though the committee will work together, there needs to be one person driving the initiative.
The university developed a set of best practices for use of the Send Word Now system, which is only used when there is a clear and credible danger to the university community. UD does not use it to send routine notifications about registration for classes or parking tickets. Examples of when UD Alert would be activated include the presence of an active shooter on campus, a chemical spill or a severe weather event.
Other best practices include sending messages that consist of quick, concise information as well as the establishment of a chain of command for message sending. Establishing protocol around who can activate a message, what to say and when can save precious minutes during a critical event.
Awareness is always a key challenge with regard to rolling out a new notification system on campus. A common theme among colleges and universities involves letting students and staff know that the system is available and the information delivered by the system can potentially save lives. UD polled students to determine how they best receive information. Results indicated posters, ads in the student newspaper and e-mail, which UD took into consideration. Students also are requested, once a semester, to review their UD Alert data on the student information system and correct any misinformation. The university also broadcasts when it is preparing to test the system so the community knows to ignore alerts.
Passing the Test
Since the university’s implementation of Send Word Now, UD has received comments from many students, parents, faculty and administrators who have applauded the project. The university community feels more confident in the dissemination of information and consequently, people feel safer overall.
Parents also have responded favorably to the system, and appreciate that calls can be sent to the student's home phone number as well as to parent's cell phones.
In March 2008, the University of Delaware and Boston University tested the system and reached 214,000 contact points, including cell phones, e-mail, landlines and BlackBerry® devices in under a half hour. UD considered the test to be a success and continues to test the system once a semester to ensure the speed and reliability of the system.