Mass notification systems provide the fastest way to deliver a message to the masses when a crisis situation arises.
However, with advancements in notification strategies, mass notification systems have taken on a much broader scope of functionality outside of emergencies.
In the higher education setting, colleges and universities embrace mass notification technology early on as a way to send out communications to students, staff and visitors on campus.
This guide takes a look at new mass notification technologies, and how colleges and universities are getting their messages out to students, faculty, staff and visitors.
Why Notify in Case of a Non-Emergency
Emergency communication systems aren’t just for emergencies anymore. “Mass notifications were alerts for emergency events like fire, weather, or within the past decade, firearm-related activity,” says Jared Bickenbach, Market Analyst, Access Control, Fire & Security, IHS Inc.
Many colleges and universities rely on mass notification to streamline day-to-day communications, including alerting faculty members about a meeting update, informing students if a class venue has changed, reminding students of approaching or shifting deadlines, special events or a change in a professor’s office hours.
When storms hit, colleges also use notification systems to inform students of canceled classes or building closures caused by unsafe conditions, such as flooded parking lots and power outages.
“As emergency notification capabilities become more capable and flexible, educational institutions see they can use some of these systems for non-emergency mass updates, such as everyday business and marketing needs,” says Bickenbach.
Mass Notifying to a Mass Audience
Colleges and universities should know who they are launching their mass notification messages to, and how many people are on campus during specific days/hours. Once these numbers are determined, colleges can decipher what content is most appropriate for their audiences.
Universities like West Virginia University have their people-count nailed down, and are more than prepared to launch mass notification messages.
“We have an average of 45,000 people on our campus on any given day comprised of students, faculty, staff and visitors who may be near campus in town,” says Spencer Graham, Manager of Operations for West Virginia University’s Information Stations
Location, Location, Location
College and universities should be aware of where the most traffic on campus is, and determine which location should be equipped with mass notification technologies.
“Compared with many other types of organizations and locations, educational campuses are often much larger and spread out, with more green spaces,” says Ben Lawrence, Senior Sales Engineer, Four Winds Interactive, LLC.
Even though emergency paging technology usually doesn’t go into class- rooms, colleges should consider installing mass notification technologies there — this is where students spend a bulk of their time during the day.
“Digital signage screens are usually located where they can be seen by the most people, like lobbies, eating areas, breakrooms, hallways,” says Lawrence.
However, not everyone will be where they can see one of these dis- plays or hear loudspeakers.
Colleges and universities also need to keep students living off cam- pus in mind. This is especially crucial for emergency situations; if these students aren’t properly notified, then they could risk going on campus during a crisis, such as an active shooting.
“An educational institution has to be able to reach far beyond the campus, to students and others who are off-premises,” says Bickenbach.
More Ways to Mass-Notify
While leveraging campus-wide networks, many colleges and universities have added digital mass communication channels to bring information, such as emergency notifications, to campus-wide locations and groups.
“WVU’s Information Stations Network includes 110-plus digital signs in highly visible locations across our campus,” says Graham. “The university has a WVU Today web page and its own channel on the campus’s cable-TV feed.”
Outdoor speakers, public-address systems, and emergency call boxes also offer more information beyond a pure alert signal, especially as these systems become integrated with an institution’s digital network.
This is particularly useful for emergency mass notification. Updated technologies, like speakers, can help a college offer action strategies for students, faculty and staff to follow during and after an emergency.
“We want to be able to clearly tell people what to do, because there are more threats than just fire, and for some threats, you don’t want people to leave the floor or building,” says Scott Lord, Director of Innovation and National Accounts, All Systems.
Students, faculty, staff, and visitors have also created additional de facto mass communications channels, such as connecting mobile devices to wireless carriers and to premise WiFi services.
These devices allow colleges and universities to reach a growing percentage of their populations via bulk text, email, voice messages, Tweets, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and other social media accounts controlled by a college’s administration.
“When our digital signage content management system gets an alert through its RSS feed, it switches all the digital signs into emergency- notification mode, and displays an alert message,” says Graham.
Use Mass Notification Wisely: Don’t Over Alert
Using mass notification must strike a balance between alerting for appropriate events – it should not occur so frequently that students, faculty and staff ignore messages.
Colleges and universities should use their mass notification for important events, including cancellations due to weather.
“WVU currently has emergency alerts, indicated with a red screen, and weather alerts, with a green screen,” says Graham. “Weather alerts are for conditions that make the university plan to shut down, which has only happened once or twice since I started working at WVU.”
Graham also says college should create templates for their mass notification systems, simplify their alert categories, and make clear design differences between emergencies and other announcements.
“And don’t test too often,” he says. “Buy and implement systems that can work together. We use e2Campus software, which triggers our digital signage to switch to alert status, sends the text message alert and the email alert message all at the same time.
Graham suggests colleges identify who should be in charge of deciding to trigger emergency alerts
“The WVU police department triggers emergency alerts,” he says.
Lawrence says if your system is flexible enough, not all alerts need to reach everybody.
“With digital signage, some alerts may be limited to specific locations,” says Lawrence. “For example, if there’s a water line break or a chemical spill in a specific building, you might bracket alerts to that area.”
Lord says colleges should analyze what their risks and needs are, and then decide how their mass notification technologies will handle them. “See if a system can serve multiple purposes, like, can a fire alarm
and voice evacuation system also do hallway paging,” he says. “If you can integrate emergency notification with other mass notification requirements, you can get better coverage, and more value for your investment.”