Mobile-enabled Communications help Mitigate Crisis

Mobile-enabled Communications help Mitigate Crisis

Having the right tools helps staff and faculty protect students

Emergencies that compromise safety on college campuses and universities are an unfortunate reality today. In fact, 90 percent of schools communicated a safety incident last year. Given the rise of incidents, campus safety is rightfully receiving increased attention. Even the 2015 U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings for the first time ever has included crime statistics for each ranked school. Campus security professionals are focused on not just protecting students, staff and faculty, but about informing them with adequate and timely resources to help protect themselves. Having the right tools in place to be able to efficiently and quickly get the right information to faculty, staff and students during an emergency is a top concern among many campus safety organizations.

While nearly all higher education institutions have emergency plans in place, a recent third-party research study of school administrators, commissioned by SchoolDude, reported that the majority of schools (79 percent) use paper-based binders and handbooks as their primary method of sharing essential crisis response information with faculty, staff and students. Unfortunately, these resources are not the most ideal when an emergency strikes and reaction times matter most. Luckily, the same survey revealed that the majority of respondents are looking toward mobile technologies as a way to communicate emergency response plans and procedures during unexpected crisis scenarios.

Systematic emergency preparedness is a vital part of every higher education institution’s planning process and mobile access to this information is critical. College campuses need comprehensive crisis plans that are proactive, immediate, actionable and, most importantly, easily communicated to help ensure the campus community has the right information and can take the appropriate action in the face of an emergency.

Paper-Based Crisis Response Plans Still Dominate

While up to 70 percent of U.S. consumers now have a smartphone and college students are some of the largest consumers of mobile technology, paper processes still dominate higher education crisis response preparation. These paper-based plans are a risk factor for campus security organizations. While once the status quo, paper-based emergency response plans can’t foster communication in real-time and can be hard to access in the event of an emergency.

How easy is it to get to a handbook in a desk or thrown on a shelf among the many other orientation items when a crisis occurs? Further, the information is out of date the moment it is printed and it is expensive to reprint. Even with high-visibility evacuation maps, the chances that constituents at risk will have access to plan information at the exact moment an emergency hits are slim.

While campus officials might think that their current crisis plans are adequate, it’s important to be aware of the restrictions and problems that may arise from paper-based plans. Analog communication systems have significant limitations in today’s mobile-driven world. Handbooks and binders can be useful for training purposes, however, when time is the most precious resource available in an emergency, easy access to thorough and up-todate emergency guidelines and procedures are critical to staff, faculty and student response.

Mobile technology offers the ability for students or faculty to anonymously report concerns to campus safety departments or get general information about warning signs for a student, roommate, or teammate related to anxiety, depression and other mental health and behavioral issues. As students enter college and live on their own for the first time, it is often friends, roommates and classmates who first notice these issues. Mobile connectivity can provide valuable information to help friends and faculty recognize red flags and also look out for each other.

Notifications Not a Stand Alone Solution

Over the past few years, many schools have added email or mobile alerts. According to SchoolDude research, 58 percent of school officials currently use an email notification system to communicate with staff during emergency situations, and 33 percent use email to convey emergency situations and protocols. While email notifications are helpful for quickly sending a mass update, they are limited. Email and other alert-only response processes only make people aware of an emergency. They don’t offer proactive information or instructions to help manage situations, for example, providing building-specific information with details on where to evacuate in the event of a fire, natural disaster or other dangerous situation.

Also, alerts—mobile-enabled or email—require that an individual be at the base of operations or headquarters disseminating that information continuously. Today, with such fluid updates and changes, this is not a timely way to communicate during emergency situations. Restricting these response tools to a handful of people, who have access to the necessary information, can create bottlenecks and severe safety concerns.

Mobile Response Plans Always Close at Hand

The use of mobile technologies to communicate emergency preparedness procedures, and automate paper-based processes, is rising within schools. In fact, it is a top three priority among administrators for school planning this year, according to the SchoolDude study.

Given students’ wide usage of mobile devices, a unified mobile strategy that incorporates alerts to response plans, maps and next steps is a natural step and critical task for campus emergency needs, as they navigate scenarios from building closures to violence to injury.

While budget, implementation time and technical expertise have been common adoption roadblocks, mobile development has advanced and made mobile-enabled plans very cost-effective and straightforward. The majority of institutions already have crisis response procedures in place, and many of them are already equipped with the necessary mobile tools to share critical information with staff and faculty. It is just a matter of marrying these two systems with a simple set up and easy plan upload to dramatically improve emergency response procedures. No special technical expertise is required and plans are password- protected to be shared based on roles and responsibilities within the organization.

There is a significant amount of time that is regularly being dedicated to emergency response planning including working closely with first responders and local emergency officials. Mobile technologies can help all parties collaborate and provides access to the most current resources and plans instantly.

Based on the nature of threats that colleges and universities can potentially face and the existing channels of communication between the staff, faculty and students, it is clear that administrators must reassess the efficiency of their current crisis response plans to make sure that safety needs are met.

Accessing emergency plans and procedures via mobile devices can help ensure all audiences have the most current emergency protocols within reach during an emergency. As campus security professionals continue to focus on ways to keep their emergency plans current and well communicated in order to maintain safe learning and work environments, mobile technologies will play a crucial role.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Security Today.

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