Communicating With Speed and Clarity

Soon after the Virginia Tech tragedy unfolded, many colleges and universities began re-evaluating the manner in which they planned to communicate emergency information to staff, students, employees, and visitors. Vendors of emergency communications equipment and systems intensified their marketing efforts (as would be expected). Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on state-of-the-art emergency communications technology in recent months. But how much improvement has really been achieved?

The answer lies with the manner in which the technology has been incorporated into the human environment, and the preparation for human beings to utilize these amazing and robust systems under extreme stress. Most civilian college and university administrators fail to appreciate the truly debilitating effects of stress on the human mind during catastrophic events. Without humans in control of their ability to reason, the most capable communications systems may not be utilized properly or quickly enough to have optimal effect. The ability of the institution’s leadership team to function emotionally under extreme stress is paramount to the successful management of a catastrophic event.

Effective emergency communications requires that both people and technology be capable of communicating effectively. For example, if a university acquires a highly capable emergency notification system, the advantage may quickly degrade if key staff cannot sort through a high volume of confusing, and sometimes contradictory, messages under crisis conditions to decide what information to disseminate. Only training, integration of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), an effective progressive exercise program, and appropriate faith in public safety personnel can prepare higher education officials to cope with truly catastrophic events.

NIMS Compliance Breeds Competence

No institution of higher learning is competent to handle a catastrophic event unless and until the leadership team has been formally trained in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). College or university presidents or department heads who do not know what NIMS is and how it works are truly unable to provide solid leadership during a major event. People can die as a result of such incompetence. Without NIMS, the leadership team cannot possibly manage the onslaught of information and the ensuing chaos created by fast-moving crisis situations. NIMS is the information and resource management system that enables organizations to manage assets and information during rapidly changing and uncertain times.

Progressive Exercise Programs

The only way to make paper plans and classroom training on topics like NIMS a reality under stressful crisis conditions is the implementation of a progressive exercise program. An integrated series of drills, table top exercises, functional exercises, and periodic full-scale exercises is the only proven way to test plans, procedures, and equipment while allowing staff to practice the life-or-death skills needed to manage major crisis situations. If students have never participated in a blocked-access fire drill or a shelter-in-place drill, and if crisis team members have never practiced using plan components during a stressful functional exercise, all of the plans, equipment, and systems that have been purchased or developed are nothing more than theory. We have repeatedly observed chronic plan and systems failures in major catastrophic events at campuses through the years.

Listening to Public Safety Experts

There are some administrators in the field of higher education who are reluctant to follow the recommendations of public safety officials. Public safety professionals typically have considerable field experience in crisis communications. Unfortunately, civilians who have not witnessed the traumatic situations that the average police officer has observed often underestimate the stress level of crisis situations when public safety officials emphasize the difficulties that will be encountered. Many public safety practitioners have expressed concern that they have encountered resistance to the implementation of proven and clear-cut safety practices. All professionals must, from time to time, put their confidence in others who are experienced and trained in specific fields such as medicine, mental health, law enforcement, fire service, public health, and emergency management.

The core competencies of crisis communications will determine how well the very best emergency communications technology works under crisis conditions. Because their lives sometimes depend on them, public safety experts usually know how to make communications equipment and systems work under real-world crisis conditions. There is a time and a place for confidence in the recommendations of university police chiefs, security directors, local fire officials, and others whose daily business is the safety of others. People have died on campuses when the well-founded recommendations of public safety experts were ignored.

All emergency preparedness measures and technology solutions are degraded when personnel cannot effectively communicate under crisis conditions. Make fast and reliable human communications as great a priority as solid emergency technical communications solutions and your organization will be far better prepared to face any crisis.

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, non-profit 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

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at