Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Getting the Right Word Out

The recent accidental transmission of an emergency warning that missiles were headed to Hawaii caused immeasurable fear and embarrassment. Accidentally transmitted warnings have occurred at institutions of higher learning as well. While these situations are certainly problematic (to say the least), there are more deadly ways that human error can misuse viable emergency communications systems.

Proper training and testing using scripted or audio all-hazards crisis scenarios can reduce the chances that these mistakes will occur. The use of scenarios during training and fidelity testing, as well as to initiate drills and exercises, is one of the most effective ways to help staff learn how to use the organization’s plans, procedures, and communications tools quickly while also reducing the chances that errors will occur.

Examples of potential problems using three popular types of communications systems can illustrate how scenario-based approaches can increase reliability not only for these types of solutions but for almost any other type of emergency communications technology as well.

ENS Systems

Emergency notification systems (ENS) are now utilized by most institutions of higher learning. Most ENS share similar basic functions: They can push out large numbers of communications in a relatively short period of time; they allow campus officials to send out messages via phone, text, and email; and they can be used for both emergency and non-emergency situations.

Today’s ENS are robust and allow campus officials an unprecedented level of speed and messaging capabilities. However, most of these systems are still highly dependent upon human operators. Providing staff with adequate opportunities to practice crafting, selecting, and pushing out messages in a timely fashion can be important. The periodic use of scripted and recorded audio scenarios in “real-time” activities is one of the most effective ways to provide effective practice.

Misuse of Phone Apps

I was recently running one-on-one crisis simulations at a school where any employee could rapidly punch in a three-digit authorization code to access a campus-wide intercom system which would allow him or her to make an immediate voice announcement that would be heard by armed security staff as well as the rest of the campus community. The leadership team had also provided all employees with a phone app that would allow them to hit a button to send out an alert and automatically call 911 for an active shooter situation. The app also allows staff to hit a general alert button and push out a text message. While the employee was easily able to communicate for an active shooter event, she failed to communicate effectively for scenarios involving an aggressive person with a knife, an intoxicated man brandishing a handgun, a person taking hostages, and other emergency scenarios that did not involve an active shooter. In each of these scenarios, the employee opted to take between one and two minutes to type in a message to send out via the app (in test mode) rather than simply picking up a phone to request an armed response while initiating protective actions for the rest of the campus using the public-address system.

Emergency Warning and Communications Systems

Many institutions of higher learning have automated emergency warning and communications systems that allow an employee to press a button to initiate warnings for a variety of emergency situations such as an active shooter, tornado, or sheltering for hazardous materials. I have often seen campus employees select the wrong message for the scenarios when presenting them with scenarios in real-time fashion because they select the wrong button under the relatively mild stress of the simulations. For example, campus officials often select the message for an active shooter event, for a tornado scenario or, conversely, the severe weather warning message for a scenario involving a series of gunshots on campus. These types of mistakes could result in a mass casualty loss of life in an actual event.

Using a variety of scenarios to train personnel how to use emergency communications followed by one-on-one real-time fidelity testing with scenarios to verify that personnel know how to make the correct decisions as well as how to operate the communications systems is inexpensive, easy to do, and could save lives.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management February 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at