Mass Notification and 
Emergency Communication

Mother’s Day, May, 2008, will long linger as a day of awaking for me and many other residents in the central Georgia community I call home. I received a telephone call during the early morning hours requesting that I respond to a burglar alarm at a local middle school. Little did I know a five-minute drive would become an all-day event. (Tornadoes had torn through our part of the state and destroyed or heavily damaged a lot of property, including the school.)

I had served as a public safety director in both the K-12 and university setting prior to the Virginia Tech tragedy. Before this incident on Mother’s Day, I thought an emergency notification system was like a great hospitalization plan, it’s great to have, but you hope you would never need to use it.

In her excellent article, “Best Practice in Emergency Notifications,” published in the July 2009 issue of Emergency Number Professional, Ellen Grevey points out that there is no single best practice in emergency communication, and that each community is different. Successful deployment and operation of your emergency notification system would be aided by incorporating as many recognized and recommended practices as possible. I did receive an emergency notification because the school district, like many other school districts in our state, uses a phone tree calling approach to alert district staff on weekends, holidays and other after-hours periods.

The EF2 tornados that left a swath of extensive damage just one-and–one-half miles from my home were a major disaster we will long remember. I can attest that, “Learning to dance the night of the prom is too late.” It is important to plan ahead for emergencies so that your mass communications efforts will reach the right people at the right time and in the right ways. There are some positive practices to help schools develop, maintain and manage a mass notification and communication system.

Develop a plan
Each organization, whether it is a major university with 40,000 students or a small school district of 1,800 students, should have a well-designed emergency/crisis communications plan for timely incident notification. Bringing the right people to the table in developing this plan is critical for an effective strategy. Some of the people that should be represented during the development of your emergency/communications plan are public safety personnel, information technology staff, faculty, students, representatives of the communications division and members of your crisis management team.

The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) in its 2008 “Overview of the Virginia Tech Tragedy and Implications for Campus Safety-The IACLEA Blueprint for Safer Campuses” states, “A building block of campus safety is a mass, emergency notification system.” The development of the emergency communications plan should lead an organization to the drafting of a detail Request for Proposal (RFP) for the purchase of emergency notification services. A best practice would be to draft a comprehensive RFP for the educational units to aid in securing a mass/emergency notification system to meet the needs and expectations of the organization.

According to IACLEA, the system purchased should have an array of means and methods to disseminate information to various groups within your campus communities during an emergency. Most educational organizations today are operating on a “pork-and-beans” budget, while their quest for a robust mass/emergency notification system comes with a “prime rib price tag.” After reviewing many RFPs from universities and K-12 education units, I have found a wide range of system requirements and specifications being requested to meet the needs of these organizations. Your RFP should reflect how your organization intends to use the mass/emergency notification system. Some major specifications listed in your RFP might be:

General requirements — an example of such a requirement would be “the service must be web-based and the vendor should provide a comprehensive list of supported web browsers and computing platforms, or the detailed specification requirements for the web browser.”

Contact database — an example of such requirement in this area would be “the contact data must remain private and inaccessible to any user other than and administrator and the data owner.”

A mass/emergency notification system with future mass communication methods in mind — What type of support does the system provide for specified devices such as: instant messaging (IM), sirens, public address systems, campus two-way radios, desktop/laptop notification via specialized clients or digital signage on campus? And is there unlimited notification throughout out the duration of the contract term? This is a major consideration in the college and university environment, but is relevant on K-12 campuses as well.

Another key area in the RFP major specifications is the technology support and training by the system vendor at start-up and long term. These two areas could have major impact on maintaining and managing your mass notification and communication. Does the system provider provide on-site, online training options and on-demand self-training options? Staff changes in the field of education across the entire face of the organization demands a system with the flexibility to deliver these types of training options.

Another positive practice involves purchasing a system that allows ease in managing the contact database. The service provider should be able to describe for the organization the maximum number of users, contact methods the system is capable of supporting and to describe the capabilities and limitations of this function. Does the system allow the global administrator the ability to temporarily flag a user who is going away on an extended absence to prevent notifications? Does the system allow for non-traditional members of the community (such as summer educational groups/camps, seminar attendees, campus visitors) to participate in the mass/emergency notification system? How easy is it for the organization to update the contact database, including bulk updates, administrator updates and user self-updates? In the event of an actual emergency situation, does the system provide for conference bridging?

It is becoming increasingly clear that today’s school officials can no longer depend on a single mode of communications for emergency notification. Establishing an emergency communication system’s reach encompasses issues specific to both individual technologies as well as various messaging formats, and demands emphasis on gauging both the advantages and the limitations of the particular technology.

It starts with the well-designed emergency/crisis communication plan developed in concert with public safety, IT, communication, faculty/students and other key stakeholders. The drafting of comprehensive Request for Proposal (RFP) aids in the purchase of the system to meet your organizations mass/emergency communication needs.

Purchase a mass/emergency communication with the idea of where you want to be in the near and distant future and not where you are right now. Keep in mind what Grevey says in “Best Practices in Emergency Notifications” — there is no single best practice in emergency communication, and each community is different. Grevey suggests that it is important to have an established system operating procedure. She recommends organizations consult with their neighboring communities and other agencies in the public safety sphere to gather their expertise.

K-12 school districts and schools should look for systems that are user-friendly, with a web-based interface that allows a non-technical user to self-administer and manage time-sensitive communication to subscribers. You may only need a system that will allow you to communicate more routine information such as school closings, delayed openings, important announcements, meetings and absentee notifications. However, the system you purchase should enhance your campus safety process as you strive to improve your emergency planning and critical incident response.

Mother’s Day 2008, taught me the importance of having a mass emergency notification plan to complement and support the technologies that allow for mass notification. Planning ahead for emergencies so that your mass notifications efforts will reach the right people at the right time is as important as the technology selected. I sleep better knowing my K-12 school system has a plan and a robust notification system to carry out our plan under extremely challenging conditions. 

Russell Bentley
is a school district police chief with more than 20 years of experience. While working as an analyst for Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety center, Mr. Bentley has keynoted conferences, has presented in nearly 40 states, and has assisted with school safety, security and emergency preparedness assessments for more than 2,000 public and non-public schools across the nation. Mr. Bentley welcomes reader feedback and questions at