9 Ways to Optimize Your Mass Notification Systems

 In News

It is important to plan ahead for campus emergencies so that your mass notification efforts will reach the right people at the right time. This list of best practices can help you to accomplish your mass notification goals.

1. Determine who has authority to issue alerts. A campus emergency notification policy should cover who has the authority to approve sending messages. According to USC’s Captain David Carlisle, there shouldn’t be too many decision makers. “The group of people authorized to decide whether or not to issue a Trojans Alert has to be relatively small in order to expedite the process,” he says.

The policy should also cover who actually issues those warnings. Is it the police department, security department, emergency management, the communications department or some other group?

Who has the authority to issue emergency notice?

Security director 54%
President 48%
Vice president 44%
Police chief 39%
Emergency management 30%
Incident commander 30%
Public relations/PIO 26%
CEO 20%
Emergency response 19%
Deputy chief 17%
Safety team 15%
IT 11%
Superintendent 9%
Residence life director 6%
Principal 6%
Chancellor 6%
Human resources 4%
Other 11%

Source: Campus Safety 2010 Mass Notification Survey

2. Trust the Weather Service.
“If the National Weather Service issues a warning, relay that warning,” recommends FSU Emergency Management Coordinator Dave Bujak. “If it turns out to be a non-event, that’s not your problem. Let them be the professionals, and don’t try to second guess them.”

3. Adopt the opt-out approach to text alert enrollment. According to CS’ 2010 mass notification survey, only 11 percent of campuses that have text message alert systems have automatic enrollment with an opt-out option. Although opt-out is not very popular, Bujak says this approach to getting campus constituents to enroll in text alerting is the most effective.

“With opt-in, in the best case you are looking at a 35-40 percent participation rate and the worst case is 10 percent. It’s hardly worth it. We have an opt-out policy. You can’t register for classes unless you provide us with your phone number or check the disclaimer that ‘I am opting out.'”

This approach has yielded FSU a 90 percent participation rate.

4. Educate campus about your mass notification program.
This can be done via E-mail announcements, new student and staff orientation, Web site announcements, newspaper/newsletter announcements, posters, sign-up tables, TV and radio ads, mailers/ teacher/parent meetings, parent association meetings and more.

5. Automate your database. The campuses that manage their databases most effectively tie in their student enrollment and human resource databases. Additionally, these automated processes scan for students who are no longer attending and employees who have been terminated. Vendors can also help with this process. Some systems have a feature that discontinues sending a message to a device if it continues to not receive or reject messages. The system then communicates the problem to the recipient’s other devices.

6. Coordinate with I.T. and other stakeholders. “A lot of people developed their systems in a vacuum and they either stepped on toes or didn’t realize they spent $100,000 on this when they could have utilized something else,” says Bujak. “For us, we are embarking on the whole voice over IP thing. Rather than me go and spend $20,000 on indoor speakers in XYZ building, I go talk to my I.T. people. They are already covering that cost. I’ll have a building online in two months, and I just saved $20,000.”

The systems being installed should also be scalable.

7. Keep an eye on integration. “Pick the right system that integrates the various modes so that you’re not having to do 15 different things to get your message out,” says Nebraska Medical Center Safety Manager John Hauser. Hauser’s campus uses e2Campus to integrate text, E-mail, voice notification and computer notification.

8. Use multiple technologies from different vendors. Deploying multiple modes will help to ensure the strengths of one solution compensate for the weaknesses of others. For example, USC’s Trojans Alert is provided by Cooper Notification. To cover the gaps of this SMS text/E-mail system, the campus recently tested a solution from IntelliGuard that uses paging technology to notify the campus community via messaging signs and FOBs.

“It’s a good additional layer because the technology behind it is different than the cell phones,” USC Department of Public Safety Chief Carey Drayton says. “It doesn’t have to go through a gateway for text messages. It doesn’t have to rely on computers to process the messages. It goes to all of the devices simultaneously. In less than 10 seconds, every device had the message.”

9. Know ahead of time when you will activate your mass notification systems. “Define the situations where you know you are going to activate,” UCLA’s Emergency Preparedness Manager David Burns says. “If you wait until you have a situation, you are asking for trouble. There have been so many media reports where campus officials don’t have a policy and they are going to rely on the circumstances to define how they are going to act. This is a recipe for disaster. It’s going to create delays. You are going to have the inevitable argument and meanwhile the community is wondering where the information is because they are starting to see it on TV and hearing about it through social media, yet the campus is silent.”

Source: 9 Ways to Optimize Your Mass Notification Systems , Campus Safety, August 02, 2011.