Making a Difference

Audio notifications are a critical assistant for campus alerting

Alerting a campus about an emergency poses a number of challenges that can be difficult to anticipate and manage during an emergency. The size of a campus, the delivery methods campus security teams leverage, and ongoing activities and distractions can all prevent critical messages from reaching everyone. During an emergency, campuses need to deliver messages quickly that reach as close to 100 percent of their population as possible, but if campuses aren’t using the right channels to send alerts, it may mean people miss or ignore a message.


One way many college and university campuses try and reach 100 percent of their population is by using mass SMS text messaging services to alert people about an emergency. In theory, this sounds like an effective way to get information into the hands of the people that need it.

However, mobile notifications have several limitations, especially on campuses, that may cause recipients to miss a message. The two primary audiences for receiving alerts on campus are students and staff. In certain classrooms, students may be required to keep mobile devices stored away or on silent so as not to disrupt instruction. Professors, teaching assistants and other instructors will be focused on classwork, and therefore will likely not be accessing their phone in the middle of class. This could leave large portions of campus unaware that a dangerous situation is taking place, wasting precious time when they should be taking action to keep themselves out of harm’s way.

This also doesn’t account for any visitors that may be on campus who are not a part of mass SMS text messaging service. They would need to rely on others to let them know that an event is taking place and what the proper procedures are for seeking safety. Campuses wouldn’t rely on silent alerts to notify people if there was a fire, and they shouldn’t rely on a text-only forms of communication to notify people about other emergency events like active shooters or severe weather.


This is not to say that mobile alerts are completely ineffective when campuses need to send alerts, but it should be used in conjunction with intrusive audio messages to ensure everyone is aware that a situation is taking place.

Audio notifications can interrupt ongoing instruction to alert students and faculty that they need to take action. Campuses should look to leverage devices they already have in place in classrooms and buildings that can be used to share simultaneous audio messages. This adds more value to existing technology investments and reduces the need for people to familiarize themselves with another new tool.

For example, IP phones can be connected to a mass notification system to turn the phone into a speaker that broadcasts emergency alerts in a classroom. Mobile notifications can be ineffective even if mobile phones have sound or vibration turned on. Students and staff could waste precious seconds trying to find or unlock phones to view the text message. Using the IP phone as a speaker for audio offers a more immediate way for people on campus to receive information. They don’t even need to waste time picking up the phone to hear the message.

Similarly, IP speakers placed throughout campuses can have the advantage of getting people’s attention if they are walking between classes, are not near a desk phone, or have their mobile device stowed away. Some campuses may still be using traditional overhead paging, as IP speakers can be a large investment. For campuses looking to keep costs down, while still providing a powerful way to alert people, certain mass notification systems can integrate with analog speaker systems to deliver audio alerts.


Another non-mobile option to deliver audio is alerts sent to desktop notifications. Text that pops-up over existing applications can be an effective way to interrupt student or instructor work and let them know about an emergency. Some mass notification systems can also broadcast audio, even overriding a computer that is set to mute if system administrators wish to do so. The audio helps emphasize the urgency of the message and offers an additional method for delivering a notification. It also can help reach people who may have stepped away from the computer know that someone is trying to share vital information with them.

Campuses should consider the situations they need to prepare for and prerecord messages that can be easily triggered in the event of an emergency. Audio messages should include clear and concise language about what kind of event is taking place and what people on campus are expected to do.

An alert for an active intruder may require different messaging than an alert for a chemical spill. Having messages recorded ahead of time will save time when an emergency occurs and will alleviate putting pressure on a staff member or administrator to deliver accurate, easy to understand information. In certain circumstances it may be more prudent to utilize live audio to provide more detailed and up to date information that cannot be recorded ahead of time. In this case it is important to select someone who can speak plainly when under pressure so everyone can grasp what is happening.

When an emergency occurs, campuses should do everything they can to get people to stop and take notice of critical alerts. Notifications should be as easy to consume as possible. That means using text, audio and other visual elements to reach everyone with the instructions they need to stay safe.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2020 issue of Security Today.


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