Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

Avoiding Deadly Mistakes

Emergency Communications


The accidental transmission of an emergency warning in Hawaii caused immeasurable fear and embarrassment. Accidentally transmitted warnings have occurred in K-12 schools as well. While these situations are certainly problematic, there are more deadly ways that viable emergency communications systems have been misused through human error.

In some situations, these types of misapplication could result in the loss of human life or even mass casualties. Proper training and testing, using scripted or audio all-hazards crisis scenarios can reduce the chances these mistakes will occur. The use of scenarios during training, fidelity testing, as well as initiating drills and exercises, are the most effective ways to help school employees learn how to use the organization’s plans, procedures, and communication tools quickly, while also reducing the chances for errors.

Examples of potential problems can illustrate how scenario-based approaches may increase reliability for almost any other type of emergency communications technology.

ENS Systems

Most K-12 schools and districts have had emergency notification systems (ENS) for many years. 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 e-mail, and
  • they can be used for both emergency and non-emergency situations.

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

Misuse of Phone Apps

I was recently running crisis simulations at a school where any employee could rapidly punch in a three-digit authorization code to access a campus-wide intercom system. That system would allow them to make an immediate voice announcement that could 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 this allowed the employee to communicate easily during an active shooter event, it was not set up in a way that allowed them 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 needed to take between one and two minutes to type in a message to send out via the app, 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

An increasing number of schools have automated emergency warning and communications systems so an employee can press a button to initiate warnings for a variety of emergency situations, such as an active shooter, tornado, or sheltering for hazardous materials. During exercises that present the campus employee with scenarios in real-time fashion, I have often seen them select the wrong message because they pushed the wrong button due to the relatively mild stress of the simulations.

For example, school officials often incorrectly select the message for an active shooter event, for a tornado scenario. Or, they select the severe weather warning message for a scenario involving a series of gunshots on campus. These types of mistakes could easily result in a loss of life or even mass casualties in an actual event.

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

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management March 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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