Emergency Management Higher Education

A Campus Wide Challenge: Emergency Notifications

An emergency phone positioned on a brick wall.

Campuses around the country have a difficult job. Beyond educating their students, higher education institutions have the responsibility to keep students and their instructors safe.

How should alerts get to staff and students? When is the right time to notify? These are two questions being asked by colleges and universities when it comes to emergency notifications. Unfortunately, no finite or “only” way to do either of these things have been discovered. What is known for certain, however, is that campuses must have the capacity to alert their community in a way that meets their identified expectations, while also keeping in mind the law and the needs of outside entities.

Emergency Notifications on Campuses

The 2007 tragedy that took place at Virginia Tech prompted schools, both higher education and K-12, around the country to invest in emergency notification systems. Since then, violence on school campuses has made it increasingly necessary for higher education institutions to have systems and processes in place to alert and communicate critical information.

In fact, according to Campus Safety’s 2023 Emergency Notification Deep Dive, 37% of higher education respondents that were questioned indicated that they are planning to upgrade their notification system within the next two years. It makes sense that an upgrade in software and technology for many is necessary, as 95% of higher education respondents indicated text messages as their notification delivery service and 96% of respondents utilize emails as well.

There is a wide variety of situations that campuses will utilize their mass notification systems for —  active shooter/active assailant, lockdowns, sexual assaults and missing students, to name a few.

Though planning and preparing for how to respond to these types of incidents is never something anyone wants to do, it is what needs to be done. Emergency notification systems are essential in doing so.

Three Key Challenges

One of the biggest challenges institutions face when choosing and committing to an emergency notification system is how simple it is to maintain and update it. Ease of use for end users as well as those responsible for database management is critical in order for notifications to be as effective as possible.

But before there is a database to manage, there needs to be recipients and getting people to enroll, which can be difficult. This is especially complicated at a university as registration is not only required for staff, but also the adult students who are responsible for their own safety. New student and staff orientations have proven to be effective opportunities to make sure that everyone on campus is enrolled.

Once the emergency notification system has an updated contact list to send to, institutions then have to determine the best way to use it for their students and staff. Though there are some guidelines when it comes to being notified, there is still some ambiguity for institutions to navigate.

The Clery Act is a federal law that requires colleges and universities to dispatch a “timely warning” when there is a serious or ongoing threat to students and staff. In the event of an immediate or significant danger to the health or safety of the campus community, the Act states that officials may send out an emergency notification.

The vagueness can cause frustration and confusion, for both those initiating the alerts and those receiving them. Should institutions send a notification as soon as a possible threat is identified or should they wait only until the threat has been confirmed?

If an alert is sent out once a threat has been identified, it allows students and staff the opportunity to respond on their own accord. However the other side of the coin is that if the threat is unfounded, the notice could cause undue stress or confusion.

Having a policy that a notification is sent once a threat has been confirmed tends to be the most common. This way only verified information is dissipated and the fear that the campus’ notification system becomes moot, as alerts will only be sent for corroborated threats.

The flipside of this strategy is that in some instances, as seen at the University of Pittsburgh, waiting until after the fact could not only cause dissatisfaction among students, but fear of what could have been.

As evidenced by what happened at Pitt, in today’s connected world, students expect a level of transparency that hasn’t been seen before. Growing up navigating an unprecedented uptick of school violence as well as a once in a century pandemic, many students have the attitude that the more information and communication, the better.

It’s not just receiving a notification and then a follow up with what happened, however. Students expect to be informed on what actionable steps are being taken to either respond to a real threat or mitigate it so that a similar situation doesn’t happen again.

No Clear-Cut Answers

Promptness and accuracy are two things that can often seem elusive during an emergency, but they are necessary when communicating to a population that are relying on the information being shared to keep them as safe as possible.

An emergency notification system that is simple to use and keep up to date will transform alerting processes. Though the “right” time to notify might always be a work in progress for institutions, having a tool that is reliable for whenever that next moment is, is paramount.

One of the first lessons we learn as students, after the Golden Rule, is that communication is key: and includes both speaking and listening. Though exceedingly simplified, maybe that is what needs to be kept in mind when determining how to go about notifying your campus, students, and staff.

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