Disaster Response

Automating Disaster Response Plans with Mass Notification

During a crisis, school leaders have a large number of tasks they need to accomplish to fulfill the measures established in their safety plans. Each item can impact the safety of their students and staff, but the more items they are responsible for, the higher risk there is that one of those steps will get missed. While many schools look to different technologies to help solve this issue, this can have an unintended side effect: The more tools a school adds, the more time it can take to accomplish each task.

a group of studenst in a classroom all raising hands 

PHOTO © SYDA PRODUCTIONS

When time is of the essence, this is hardly ideal, as each delay can increase the chance that someone is harmed. However, finding a complete solution isn’t always easy. As school safety needs have changed, so has the technology that addresses them, but outdated assumptions about what certain tools can do can lead schools to overlook the answer to their problems.

Many schools have turned to mass notification systems that offer critical event management capabilities to help automate their disaster response plans, alleviating the responsibility from school leaders who then have more time to help those in need. Schools are recognizing that they need to do more than just send out a message when an emergency occurs. They need to be able to have the resources to handle an event from start to finish. That’s why enhanced mass notification tools are becoming so valuable.

Leveraging critical event management capabilities, schools don’t just create a heap of messages they deploy at different times. Instead, they develop comprehensive scenarios for different situations they may face, like an active shooter, severe weather, or a medical emergency. Each scenario has every step of a school’s disaster response plan built into it, so that no matter who is using the tool, they can follow along and complete every step.

System administrators can build messages that address each component of their response plan. This can include initial alerts, follow-up messages with additional details, and all-clear messages that let the school community know the incident has been resolved and normal operations can resume. These messages can be associated with different groups, specific areas within a school, and certain types of devices.

For example, certain messages may need to be sent school-wide, while others only need to be shared with security personnel. In cases where multiple schools are housed within the same building, it may be beneficial to send messages only to the middle school, and not the elementary or high school. This flexibility allows schools to get the right messages in front of the right people.

Schools can also take advantage of the wide range of integrations available with mass notification to broadcast messages throughout their buildings using devices they may already have in place. Desk phones, paging systems, IP speakers, desktop computers, digital signage, and mobile phones can all be used to share information as text, audio, and visuals. This multi-pronged approach allows schools to utilize every communication channel at their disposal, so no matter where someone is or what they are doing, no one misses a message when it matters most.

Once messages have been built, schools can also upload helpful resources that can be accessed from a web-interface or mobile app. Safety checklists, floor plans, links to security camera feeds, and other tools can all be accessed from with the mass notification system. The goal is to minimize the number of applications someone would need to utilize by providing everything they need in a central location. This saves times, reduces confusion, and creates a more streamlined disaster response.

It is also possible for schools to add additional pieces that can help them gain real-time insights. Mass notifications can be sent asking for a response from recipients. This could be a simple yes/no question, such as “Are you safe?” or “Have you evacuated the building?” Being able to review responses in real time helps school leaders know who needs assistance. Messages can also be sent with links to join virtual collaboration spaces. New integrations with tools like Microsoft Teams, Webex, Zoom and Slack provide schools with more options to quickly gather key stakeholders. People can share information, assess the situation, and determine the best course of action.

Schools also want to know how effective their disaster response plan was. Mass notification systems can generate after-action reports detailing whether each step was completed, whether messages reached their intended audience, and other pertinent information. School leaders can then review the report and understand what worked and what can be improved for future events. This final piece is what creates a truly comprehensive disaster response solution for schools by providing a tool that can be used before, during and after an incident. They can get the big-picture view and drill down into the details that are most relevant.

The biggest advantage to schools is that by building everything ahead of time, the moment they need to activate a scenario, it starts a domino effect that makes events easier to manage. Mass notification systems offer a wide range of triggers, including physical panic buttons, mobile apps, and wearables, as well as automated triggers from monitored RSS and CAP feeds and Internet-of-Things devices like gunshot detectors. This means the moment someone notices an incident in progress, the disaster response process can begin.

For any school, the biggest challenge can be taking a good plan and making it actionable. No matter how much time and money a school invests in planning, it won’t amount to anything if that plan cannot be acted upon in a time of need. That’s what a mass notification system with critical event management capabilities can offer: a way to take plans out of binders and put them into the cloud so they can be accessed and activated from anywhere. Regardless of the situation, school leaders can be prepared to face any challenge that may arise and provide a safe learning environment for their students and staff.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Paul Shain is president and CEO of Singlewire Software, developers of InformaCast.

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