Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)


emergency communications


Not long ago, a train derailed along the perimeter of a four-year college in Texas. The train was pulling a number of tankers containing propane gas. The derailment caused one of the tankers to leak. College officials used radio and television combined with text messages to cell phones to tell students, faculty, and staff to evacuate the campus.

While there was no way to tell how many people were on campus at the time, it is probably accurate to say that many thousands of the school’s 20,000 commuter and residential students were present, along with a full quotient of faculty and administrators.

Emergencies happen. A few years ago, for example, at a university in the upper Midwest, a contractor was excavating the road leading into the campus. One of the workers hit a gas line. Drawing on pre-set emergency protocols, school officials quickly set up a command center and, relying primarily on text messages, evacuated the campus.

In this day and age of active shooters and unexpected accidents, it is vital for college and university security and emergency personnel to be able to communicate effectively with the campus-wide audience at a moment’s notice.

Three emergency communications systems are available to college and university campuses today. All three can work inside as well as outside of buildings.

First, the public-address system can broadcast messages through speakers located inside buildings. Speakers can also be located outside of buildings so those approaching a building can be warned to stay away or to come inside, depending upon the nature of the emergency.

Second comes message boards. Campus officials can scroll emergency messages across these boards, which, again, can be located inside and outside of buildings.

Third, and perhaps most effective, is the ubiquitous modern communication: text messages. Today, virtually everyone carries a cell phone. “Cell phones also make it much easier to communicate emergency messages,” says Mike Halligan, a UL fire and life safety consultant for corporate and educational clients.

Calling All Those Cell Phones in an Emergency

Public address speakers and scrolling boards make it easy to send out a mass notification message, but such messages, while useful, won’t necessarily reach everyone on campus. Cell phones rank as the most efficient way to contact virtually everyone on campus.

Then again, how can a campus security director text everyone’s cell phone all at once? “Most campuses employ a company that can broadcast mass notification messages to cell phones,” says Halligan.

Officials must, however, think about this ahead of time and plan a system matched to the needs of particular campuses. For instance, a campus with 5,000 people will have different needs than a campus with 50,000 people.

“If you have 5,000 people on campus, you can communicate very fast,” Halligan says. “On the other hand, if you have 50,000 people, it will take longer. Companies that send out mass notification messages may have limits. It might only be possible to send 10,000 messages at a time. To communicate with 50,000 people, it becomes necessary to send five messages, one after the other. It can still be done fast, but it will take longer.”

What if a college maintains several campuses? Is there ever a need to communicate with people on each campus? “Yes,” says Halligan. “One of our clients in California has a cluster of nine campuses within a 90-minute drive of each other. If there is an earthquake, it could affect some of these schools or all of them. When a problem that may affect some or all locations arises, the safety teams at all of the locations receive the emergency message.

“If an emergency issue involves just one campus—an active shooter, for instance—messages go out only to that campus.”

Many security directors create and pre-load emergency messages. Pre-loaded messages must be general enough to cover all the variations that might arise, while allowing for customization.

“For example, severe weather can create an emergency situation on campus,” says Paul Timm, vice president with Lemont, IL-based Facility Engineering Associates. “We work with many schools in the Midwest, where tornadoes rank as one of the most dangerous weather events. Pre-loaded emergency messages can direct students, faculty, administrators—as well as visitors—to shelter areas available on campus in an efficient and timely fashion.”

Routine Messages, Too

Planning also includes creating and pre-loading routine messages. Most campuses will host similar events over and over—football and basketball games, for instance. It is possible to prepare routine messages that can be approved ahead of time and used again and again to help manage the crowds on game day.

According to Halligan, mass notifications can also direct arriving visitors to parking areas and away from road closures—as long as they have signed up for the service.

Signing up is a relatively simple matter. Students, administrators, and anyone else who wants to receive notifications simply enter their phone numbers into the system. Colleges today typically offer students an opportunity to enter their cell phone numbers into the system at the beginning of the school year.

Halligan cautions that the emergency communications system should only be used for emergencies: bomb threats, active shooters, fires, and other threats. “You don’t want to use it to remind people of a sale at the bookstore or a show at the theater,” he says. “That kind of use will desensitize people. They will begin to think that this is just another attempt by the university to publicize something. When a real emergency arises, they may not bother to read the message.

“So before putting up a message on the emergency system, you should ask yourself: ‘Will this information make the recipients safer?’ Send the message if and only if it will make recipients safer.

“The issue is worth exploring. What if you have someone using a BB gun to shoot out car windows at 2:00 a.m.? Even though few people were around at that time, we discussed whether the campus would be safer if everyone was alerted through the messaging system. We decided that some people were always out late—in labs, or for fun. In the end, we decided that we should put the message out to do what we could to ensure people’s safety.”

Halligan adds another caution. “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” he says. “You need multiple ways to communicate in an emergency. What happens, for instance, if your cell phone towers go down and you can’t send texts or make calls?

“You must have backups: outside speakers, scrolling message boards, radio and television. Plan to use all of the available communication tools when an emergency arises—because you won’t know which tools you will have and which tools you will lose.”

That’s the key to emergency messaging: Set up an emergency communication system that employs multiple tools, and use them all when the time comes.

Communications Among Key Emergency Responders

Effective emergency communications with the student body, faculty, and administration requires coordinated communications among the security staff and other campus responders.

Two-way radios can help with that, notes Paul Timm, vice president with Lemont, IL-based Facility Engineering Associates. Timm has long advocated providing two-way radios for the security staff, campus administrators, and facilities people.

“In an emergency, you must be able to communicate with key people without delay,” he says. “Two-way radios can ensure prompt, effective communications.”

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

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