CAMPUS LIFE AND SAFETY AND SECURITY (CLASS) TASK FORCE 2008 fINAL Report
Subcommittee Reports - Notification
Scope of Work
To provide an analysis of the standards and guidelines specific to emergency notification systems on career technology and higher education campuses, including both methods and policy implications.
Diversity of campus environments and populations served
The higher education and career technology campuses throughout Oklahoma all possess unique features in terms of their environments and the populations served. From residential campuses to commuter campuses, notifying students, faculty, staff and guests can be a challenge. Further compounding the issue is the availability of funds for notification systems. Varying budgets result in each campus or institution carefully evaluating and prioritizing notification mechanisms that provide the most protection within their means – which can be a delicate balance to manage and maintain. Though there will be a tendency to implement as much as possible immediately, campuses and institutions can build on their notification systems in a cumulative fashion – adding additional layers and tools as funding permits.
Effectively and efficiently notifying students, faculty and staff of imminent danger or peril should be a primary consideration in any emergency or disaster. However, how each campus or institution decides to meet this obligation is governed by their individual needs and unique circumstances. For example, rural campuses with lower population density and vast campus property will likely need to take a different approach to notification than an urban campus with a high population density in a focused geographic area with many buildings.
The diversity of the populations served by Oklahoma’s career technology system and higher education is a consideration that is as unique as the varied campus environments. Though cell phones and e-mail appear to be commonplace communication tools in our society, there are those individuals who may not utilize these technologies on a regular basis, or even at all. Therefore, as notification plans and systems are put in place, it is essential that schools and universities be sensitive to the populations they serve so as to ensure they have appropriate notification tools available to reach a clear majority of students, faculty, staff and guests on their respective sites. Every campus will be different, so there is not a single solution or template that can be employed.
Variety of notification technologies and their benefits and limitations
Though mass notification systems have been available for years, the tragedy at Virginia Tech brought the technologies to the forefront in terms of the general public’s awareness. From high-tech to the very basic forms of communication, each has advantages as well as potential limitations. The primary purpose of systems of this nature are to notify as many people as possible as quickly and efficiently as possible, while also providing additional updates and alerts throughout the emergent situation.
Mass notification systems can consist of:
- Short Message Service (SMS) Text Messaging
- E-mail (campus and personal)
- Web Sites
- Computer Screen Pop-Ups
- Calling Trees
- Building Contact Persons
- Public Address Systems
- Radio and Television
Companies and services are also emerging that automate notifications across multiple platforms such as cell phones, home phones, work phones, e-mail accounts, voice mails and personal digital assistants (PDAs). Services and applications of this type allow schools and campuses to blast the notifications and modify them on a moment’s notice. Some services will even continue to attempt to contact individuals until a response is given.
It is seen as vital that students use their respective campus/institutional e-mails as a means of efficiency and standardization. More specifically, they are more likely to access their campus/institutional e-mails more frequently than their personal e-mail addresses offered by third-party providers.
Cost is obviously a factor with advanced technologies of this nature. Not all institutions and schools will have the financial means to afford such systems.
It is important to evaluate the necessity or importance of emergency notification standards – both policy- and technology-based. In some instances, it may be advantageous to develop benchmarks for notification reach and scope under various conditions. For example, in a report submitted July 6, 2007, by Florida’s State Working Group in Domestic Preparedness Ad Hoc Committee on University and College Campus Emergency Notification Systems, standards were recommended by level of crisis. At the highest level, urgent communications are designed to be communicated to 90 percent of the affected campus population within 10 minutes of the event. Depending on the individual campuses and the notification systems they employ, this may or may not be an achievable metric. It is, therefore, important that each campus evaluate their respective technologies and systems to assure the quickest notification that is practicable.
Though high-tech approaches are important and often effective, some schools and campuses will need to utilize their existing technologies and resources to meet their respective notification needs. Relying totally on a single technology is not ideal. Power outages and telecommunications failures render many notification platforms ineffective or useless. Marrying technologies and resources can afford the ability to have fault-tolerance in notification efforts. This can be achieved by developing strategies that take into account multiple notification means such as e-mail, text messaging, bull horns, sirens and visual notification cues such as electronic message boards, flags and banners. Again, it is essential to have at least one device or resource that is not power-dependent.
A corollary to the capacity and capabilities of the respective notification technologies is their impact on the local network and telecommunications infrastructures. In the event of any disaster or emergency, outbound and inbound communications will spike, often taxing the capabilities of the telecommunications infrastructure and causing them to fail. Therefore, it is paramount that campuses and institutions plan accordingly to have a communications vehicle to continue to alert and notify the public of the situation at hand. This can be achieved by contracting with third parties that are remote to the campus to act as a clearinghouse for information distribution for parents and family to access in the event of an emergency (e.g. Web sites, toll-free numbers, e-mail and SMS text messaging).
Linkages with key law enforcement, emergency, public agencies and other potentially impacted organizations
Career technology and higher education campuses have access to community resources when it comes to addressing their respective emergency response and notification needs. With this in mind, it is incumbent on each to explore and identify areas of collaboration with regard to leveraging local expertise and resources. An excellent mechanism to accomplish this is a memorandum of understanding (MOU). Some recommended guidelines for establishing MOUs with communities are as follows:
- Agreements must be tailored to the needs of the specific institution/agency.
- Agreements must clearly outline jurisdiction, authority and span of control during a campus/community emergency or request for mutual assistance.
- Agreements must be signed by both governing bodies and should authorize administrative officers of participating agencies to request assistance.
- Agreements should be reviewed by a legal authority.
- All agreements should be reviewed annually by all participating entities.
- All agreements must comply with applicable state and federal laws and recent court decisions concerning mutual aid agreements.
Since most government entities can only contract for a single fiscal year, it makes sense that the MOUs are reviewed annually and updated as needed. This provides certain protections for both parties involved and assures that current information and notification resources are accommodated in the agreements.
Career technology and higher education institutions may also pursue other state and national resources for notification such as the Emergency Broadcast System or the Amber Alert system. These resources can provide public notification through various media outlets in a quick and efficient manner. The media, in general, is an excellent way for a campus and/or institution to communicate with students offsite to alert them of a potential situation or provide updates to an existing situation. However, mass notifications via the media may draw more people to the campus when a more controlled environment is desired. Controlling the message through a single media contact is important in this regard so as to avoid confusion or potential community panic.
Utilizing media resources also provides communication and notification to those students who are traveling between campuses. Coupled with other technologies such as text messaging, the likelihood of notification will be much greater.
Notification and communications planning
Three areas of consideration should be reviewed when planning communication with external organizations or agencies that may be impacted in the event of an emergency or crisis on campus at a technology center, college or university: 1) what agencies should be contacted, 2) whether those agencies should be notified in advance (as part of an information outreach program), during an event or after an event and 3) what levels of emergency or crisis will trigger which organizations will be notified.
Examples of organizations to contact include:
- Law enforcement (city police, county sheriff, highway patrol)
- Emergency personnel (fire department, haz mat, health department, hospitals, civil defense, etc.)
- Social services (counseling, regional community mental health centers, shelters, Red Cross, etc.)
- Public affairs (local legislators, U.S. House or Senate offices, mayor’s office, attorney general)
- Regulatory agencies (OSRHE, federal financial aid, etc.)
- Educational institutions (area colleges, universities, public secondary, technology centers, etc.)
- Campus neighbors (businesses, neighborhoods or associations, land owners)
- Hotels (for immediate offsite accommodations and satellite site locations)
- Associations or groups affected by change in operation or status (alumni, parents, vendors, clients, etc.)
Examples of pre-, during and post- event contact include:
Notification – Pre-event
- Information kit on the institution’s emergency plan
- Inter-local agreements (MOUs) in the event of an emergency or crisis
- Contact information for key crisis team leaders or lateral departments
- Feedback on educational institution’s response plan for incorporation
- Alternative or backup space and resources
- Plan testing
Notification – During event
- Trigger services (fire, police, etc.)
- Trigger resources (information technology, water, office space, telephone, etc.)
- Trigger communication (parents, media, onsite visitors, etc.)
- Trigger support (those agencies that could service as experts to reinforce activities of institution managing a crisis)
Notification – Post-event
- Overcome miscommunications from event
- Identify new organizations for external outreach
Examples of event tiers that trigger alerts to emergency responders include:
- Threat of harm to students, visitors, faculty, staff and emergency responders
- Threat of harm to facilities, physical plants, equipment or data
- Threat of harm to reputation or operation
It is clear that linkages between campuses and community law enforcement and emergency responders can become ambiguous with regard to emergency response and notification. The question could likely be asked, “How do we notify agencies outside the campus and how do we make sure they understand the signals?” Moreover, notification procedures and protocols must be clearly planned and coordinated with external resources to assure an expeditious response to a situation as well as clarity of the message being sent. With regard to communication and response, you cannot have one without the other. Another consideration is when the notification needs to be escalated, such as notifying additional agencies and the governor’s office.
The posting of emergency procedures and notification plans clearly in all classrooms is identified as a quality education and awareness mechanism that is consistent and regularly available to all students. An additional benefit is that this is an economical way to distribute critical information and could include targeted information related to:
- General Emergency Information
- General Building Evacuation
- Explosion – Earthquake – Severe Building Damage
- Emergency Evacuation of Persons with Limited Mobility/Special Needs
- Armed Subjects
- Disruptive Individuals
- Utility Failure – Gas Leak – Persons Stranded in Elevators
- Injury Reporting
- Bomb Threat – Suspicious Package
- Chemical – Biological – Radiological Spills
- Severe Weather – Lightning Safety – Tornado
- First Aid
Testing and evaluation
Regular testing and evaluation of emergency notification plans is key to career technology and higher education institutions’ ability to safeguard the health and well-being of their students, faculty and staff. Coupled with quality training, testing and evaluating of the notification plans will provide a clear context from which to modify and expand various approaches with a goal of enhancing their efficiency, effectiveness and scope. Some campuses and institutions test their notification plans on regular intervals such as the beginning of each semester. Others have found that random testing proves to be more beneficial. Regardless of the approach taken, it is vital that testing and evaluation be conducted.
Not all circumstances or environments can be fully anticipated when it comes to notifying individuals of an incident or potential threats. It is, therefore, imperative that career technology and higher education sites present as many variables as possible during their testing activities to assure that their plans can accommodate specific failures of either technologies and/or policies. Establishing fault tolerance and redundancy should always be a key consideration. For example, there are limitations to telecommunications capabilities on campuses. Mass text messaging notification to hundreds, if not thousands, of students, faculty and staff from within the campus infrastructure can easily congest and impair communications. What then is the plan to accommodate such a failure? Are there other resources that can be employed to address a failure of this nature? Are there opportunities to work with local telecommunications providers to expand capabilities and failover?
BACK TO LIST
- Develop a notification and communication plan that is comprehensive for all emergent situations. A standard notification and communication tier system should be created to clearly define what emergencies trigger which agencies are contacted.
- Sustain regular testing and evaluation of emergency plans. Whether scheduled or random, tests and evaluations should be completed at least once each term in order to expose all students, faculty and staff on campus during each term.
- Maintain an accurate and comprehensive database of contact information for its students, faculty and staff. One method to ensure information is added into the database is to require this as a prerequisite to enrollment on the career technology and higher education campuses.
- Arrange for a communications vehicle to continue to alert and notify the public of the situation at hand. This might be achieved by contracting with third parties that are remote to the campus to act as a clearinghouse for information distribution for parents and family to access in the event of an emergency (e.g. Web sites, toll-free numbers, e-mail and SMS text messaging).
- Utilize grants and partnerships among the career technology system, higher education and communities to pursue enterprise agreements that would provide for greater economies of scale and lower individual licensing costs for notification systems – possibly putting advanced systems within reach of schools and campuses that otherwise would not have access.
- Pursue other state and national resources for notification such as the Emergency Broadcast System or the Amber Alert system.
- Post all emergency procedures and notification plans clearly in all classrooms.
- Train everyone on campus regularly to maximize awareness, education and training for emergency situations:
Awareness, education and training of students, faculty and staff are critical elements in emergency response and notification plans for all career technology and higher education campuses. Education and outreach programs should provide a sound understanding of emergency plans and notification methods available at each site. In addition, individuals should be provided with information that will help them understand the various types of emergencies and disasters and what to expect in each scenario.
Student orientations and enrollment processes are excellent mechanisms to provide focused education and training on emergency and notification plans. Heightening awareness when students first appear on campuses can provide a solid framework of understanding and appreciation of natural and man-made threats they may face. More importantly, targeted education programs can also promote individual responsibility and personal preparedness when notifications are made.
Statewide and national conferences that focus on emergency response and notification plans would provide a forum to present salient and contemporary information to students, faculty and staff. Student leadership and government groups could embrace this as a key element of their workplans and develop best practices related to various technologies and approaches to notification. Further, individuals who have the responsibility to institute and maintain notification processes within the career technology and higher education systems would also benefit from targeted programs and conferences that bring specialized resources and afford the ability to share ideas and approaches that best meet the needs of their respective campuses and institutions.
An additional approach to create awareness within the student community is to include approved language for emergency procedures and notification plans in all syllabi. This could include general guidelines that have been accepted by emergency personnel and legal divisions of the institutions and campuses. It would ensure that students receive the information consistently and multiple times at the beginning of each academic year. Further, including this targeted information on the Web sites of the campuses and institutions would also provide ubiquitous access for students, faculty and staff. Web-based delivery is also good for keeping the information and plans current and up-to-date and has the capability to provide an opportunity to solicit comments and suggestions from the constituents served.
Faculty and staff also have specific education and training needs, since the care and safety of their students is paramount. A key question to be asked is, “What should an educator keep in mind in a crisis?” With this in mind, campuses and institutions should strive to equip faculty and staff with defined training that addresses multiple threats to their students and the campus in general. This can be achieved through targeted and regularly scheduled professional development programs as well as focused training through planned drills and exercises that can be easily coupled with fire drills and other evacuation preparation and responsibilities.
Battling complacency within students, faculty and staff with regard to notification training is another concern for those establishing the very plans designed to keep them safe and secure. Over-training can result in a degree of apathy. It is critical that institutions and campuses create a high level of reverence to their exercises, so that all involved respect and acknowledge the importance of engaging and responding accordingly.
One way to combat apathy and promote more involvement might be for campuses to sponsor competitions of various types, ranging from essays and written examinations to a full-blown "Preparedness Olympics" with participants taking part in team drills for prizes. Ideally, the competitions should be designed to promote as much participation and inclusion as possible. Staff could be provided monetary incentives for the best preparedness lecture or plan, while students could be given prizes consisting of cash, free food and tickets to prime concerts. Certainly, the prizes would need to be something seen as desirable or be of value to those participating.
- Link institutional and campus plans with local law enforcement resources for scheduled training exercises. This would be a major benefit to those responsible for the development and maintenance of the notification plans. Specifically, faculty and staff would have first-hand experience with how their respective plans address given incidents provided in the training exercise. Furthermore, conducting joint training exercises with law enforcement and emergency responders provides reciprocal, real-life scenarios for external entities and also equips them with critical information such as building layouts and potential threats to emergency responders and those they are trying to safeguard.
- Arrange to collaborate with appropriate key law enforcement, emergency, public agencies and other potentially impacted organizations. These arrangements should be clearly defined in memorandums of understanding (MOUs). All institutions should establish regular collaboration and sharing of information among career technology and higher education campuses with local community resources to provide a vehicle to work out any uncertainty related to emergency response and/or notification processes and procedures. Also, establishing methods for “post-incident” evaluation would be a valuable measure of how well the campuses/institutions maintained coordination and accuracy of information related to the incident.
- Test during other planned tornado and fire drills to provide a level of efficiency and frequency to evaluate the effectiveness of notification plans. This can validate the accuracy of contact information such as e-mail addresses or cell phone numbers as well as the capabilities of the technologies employed. It can also provide insight into the performance of key staff with responsibilities during the staged incident. In addition, unannounced visits by emergency response entities such as fire marshals also provides a level of surprise and a scenario that is less predictable – thus making the situation more spontaneous and challenging.
- Conduct a post-incident or post-drill evaluation to help shape future notification strategies. Though the outcomes may not be ideal or anticipated, they can provide valuable information from the incident as a tool to evaluate – gleaning those areas of success as well as immediate shortcomings. Moreover, measuring the outcomes of individual plans against “best practices” will enable career technology and higher education to develop notification plans that are sound and effective. It is important, nonetheless, to continue to conduct annual reviews of notification plans to assure they are current and effective.