Campus Safety

Five Considerations for Your Emergency Communications Plan

By Lauris Friedenfelds

Communication is the lifeblood of any emergency response. Whatever events are happening and whatever your response is, the information must be communicated to the appropriate people. Therefore, each organization has a Duty of Care requirement, which is, in essence, an organization’s responsibility to provide a safe environment. And with the complex, hybrid workforces growing today, there is a need to look beyond the walls of the main facility. Communications are a part of that responsibility. 

In this article, we will discuss not only the technology, but also the operational aspects of an effective Emergency Communications Plan.

The first challenge is developing and implementing a plan for the organization which will manage communications. Every Emergency Operations Plan should be a communications plan. The plan should include:

  • When to initiate a message
  • Who can initiate the message
  • What the message includes
  • Who is the recipient of each message
  • How to initiate the message

When to initiate a message

To answer “When,” there is some good guidance in the form of higher education security requirements. Many know that in the higher education arena, the Clery Act not only requires annual crime reporting, but it also dictates the requirement for Emergency Notifications, as well as Timely Warnings.  A good definition is provided on the Clery Center website:

“Institutions must immediately notify the campus community upon confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on campus. (Examples: Approaching forest fire, outbreak of meningitis, approaching tornado, earthquake, gas leak, terrorist incident, armed intruder, bomb threat, etc.)”

You will need to be able to satisfy the “need to know” versus the “want to know” just because they are just curious. Ensure that the plan addresses the Immediate Threat definition. Later, the organization may choose to communicate additional information as desired, especially as required for Timely Warning of criminal incident patterns. Please refrain from using this as a tool for routine messaging. It is best that there is a bit of startlement when the message notification is received.

Who can initiate the message

When planning who can initiate the message, the organization should identify a trusted communications person who is available during emergencies. This may include several people, covering all hours 24/7. To meet the need for the immediate notification, this should not be a cumbersome decision process or a committee decision. In past incidents, the criticism of failed communications during incidents usually focused on a process that took too long to authorize and execute.

What the message includes

It is recommended that messages be pre-populated with only the location or time, as the information that needs to be added to complete the message. Make the messages short and succinct. These messages should not be a re-iteration of existing emergency procedures. Some examples:

There is an Active Threat involving a weapon at ________. Follow your emergency active threat plan for your area. Additional information will follow.

There is a bomb threat at ______. Follow your Bomb Threat Procedures. Additional information to follow.

Similarly, the method for initiating the message through your system should be simple. Of course, the initiation trigger should be secure, but it should not take four passwords and three confirmations asking “Are You Sure?”

Emergency communications should be multi-modal. The main mode should be a push message like a SMS or MMS text. According to Statista, in 2023, the current number of smartphone users in the world today is 6.92 billion, meaning 86.34% of the world's population owns a smartphone. It is generally a mistake to depend on emergency notification that is sent to an email or social media. This is passive communications and only notifies the recipient when they check their email application.

Who is the recipient of each message

A significant challenge is getting your population enrolled in the emergency notification program or system. It usually requires the recipient to divulge their personal cell phone number, and many people feel they want to keep that private. There are reports that many organizations can only get about 32% of their workforce to enroll and have attempted to improve this with policy requirements. This can be a slippery slope, however, and is often met with much resistance.

How to initiate the message

To augment targeted messages to smartphones, organizations may turn to sending messages to desk phones, house phones, and public address / audio speakers in buildings, as well as outdoor speakers. These are very helpful, especially if visitors are prevalent. Emergency messages need to target not only employees, but also visitors and non-employees. For example, when a tornado or wind shear approaches your area, how would an emergency notification get people off the street into safe areas?

When selecting the technology or systems, there are many options. Some of the larger emergency communications vendors are expanding their features to be a resource for many varied potential clients. Look for the feature set that meets most, if not all, of your needs. Keep it simple. Grow as needed.

These needs and wants can be different for each organization. However, below is a basic list of features:

Easy message initiation through mobile applications. You do not want to be tied to a desktop computer as the only device that can initiate the messaging. Most systems are cloud-based, and this is not a difficult feature to achieve.

Message capacity. Can the system handle your volume of message recipients quickly? This is especially important for large organizations. Time is of the essence. If the system, or some other parameters, prevents sending the messages to all recipients in a matter of seconds, this may be a high risk. Some systems queue up messages and release them in batches. This is not a good feature, since minutes count during emergencies.

Both text and audio messages. Not everyone lives in a text world, and not everyone likes audio messages. You must cover both populations.

Opt-in or opt-out options. As mentioned earlier, population enrollment is a challenge. Some organizations capture emergency notification phone numbers (not an emergency notification person, but rather how to get in touch in an emergency). If this information can be downloaded into the emergency notification database and used, the user counts can go up. An opt-out option may require the recipient to take action in order to not be notified.

Message received feedback. Most systems can provide feedback regarding how many people received the message, what device was used, and when. This feedback can provide effectiveness metrics.

Message grouping by location or other strata. If there is a power outage in building A, the message should be limited to only those affected.

Geo-fencing or location specific messaging. Similar to grouping, messages sometimes only need to be sent only to people in a specific geographical area. This may be important, especially with a growing trend in remote workforces.  

Message branding. Getting a phone call from an unknown number usually goes unanswered. Can the system send messages from one identifiable number?

Data entry interface. If you have 13,000 potential users, you will need to have an interface to your staff database. If not, an alternative is a hotlink to an HR or student database, or a downloadable file transfer.

Other interfaces. Can the system be a single point initiating multiple modes of messages? Can it send a message to an on-premise security or maintenance radio system? Can it interface with Intranet as well as Internet websites? (Consider using an emergency banner or page up on a desktop screen during an emergency.) Can it interface with pagers? Believe it or not, many healthcare institutions still use pagers due to their reliability.

Two-way communications. Is it important to use this system as a tool to initiate an emergency panic or duress condition from a user? If so, can it provide accurate location identification? Some of these systems can provide valuable tracking information which can be global or limited to a specific campus or geographical area. Tracking can be tricky and not everyone is supportive of this. However, having an ability to push a button on a smartphone and get immediate assistance may help sway some people.

Data security. It is helpful to have a cybersecurity evaluation and risk assessment. The last thing you want to do is break the trust of people who have provided their personal cell phone numbers and other private information in a security breach.

Cloud-based or on-premises server. Both options exist, although more organizations are opting for the cloud-based solutions to ensure resiliency and less risk due to local attack.

Vendor support These are very complex systems. There is no doubt that you will need their expertise to sort out issues at some point in time.

The selection of the emergency communications system and technology is complicated. It may require a team for IS, Security, Leadership, Emergency Management, and perhaps outside consultants. Do not be afraid get help from experts and to tap into experienced resources.

A nationally recognized safety, security, and emergency expert, Lauris Freidenfelds is the Vice President of Security Risk Consulting of industry-leader Telgian Engineering & Consulting. His 40+ years of experience include operational security, technology and emergency management programs. And, his extensive knowledge of emergency management personnel and operations encompasses planning, organizing, and directing security programs and activities, as well as development and coordination of disaster preparedness plans, the mitigation of, preparation for, and recovery from hazards and disasters. Reach Lauris at [email protected].