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7 Best Practices for Emergency Notification

Technology by itself won't save the day when a crisis hits. If it did nothing else, the Virginia Tech massacre taught us to think about instituting best practices—before we purchase that next solution.

7 Best Practices for Emergency NotificationAt the university, students and parents pilloried administrators when the school's president conferred with police and made the decision not to close the campus after the shooting. No, this was not Virginia Tech; it was California State University-Fresno,  May 7—three weeks after the East Coast massacre.

  • At another major university, after the Virginia Tech mass murder, a public safety officer researching how to enhance communications on campus is told by his president, "I don't care how much it costs. Get it."
  • At a recent IT tradeshow, one vendor selling a messaging system that can be used in times of crisis described his company's solution in glowing terms, mentioning Virginia Tech at least three times in the first two minutes of the sales pitch.
  • In the two weeks following the April 16 Virginia Tech shootings, at least 14 vendors of campus communication solutions (and similar) released "thought pieces" through the major PR wire services, with headlines such as, "Could Emergency Phone Notification Have Prevented Virginia Tech Massacre?" "Rapid Notification Critical in Emergency Situations," "Personal Preparedness: Last Line of Defense in Tragic Shooting Situation," "Emergency Notification System Allows Schools to Reach Students Instantly," and "Campus Safety: How Do We Communicate During a Crisis?"

Indeed, schools have found religion when it comes to solutions designed to deliver critical information to the campus community in a timely fashion. And the vendor community is now offering a multitude of routes to the Promised Land. The question is: Will the "right" technology solution solve all your mass communication problems? Those who have weathered campus emergencies that depended upon fast, effective communication with the campus community say technology is only part of the solution. Following, from those who have "been there," are seven critical best practices for emergency notification you need to put into place now.

1) Know Your Resources and Their Alternatives

John Lawson, former CIO of New Orleans' Tulane University, and currently vice provost for IT and CIO at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, recalls that during Hurricane Katrina, the Tulane campus lost e-mail communications right away. Although Yahoo! quickly stepped in to set up a replacement e-mail system, Lawson's team couldn't recreate what existed before because it didn't have all the account names. "That was one of the big complaints; losing that system," recalls Lawson. And circuits in the 504 area code were jammed, so voice calls—including cell phone calls—were difficult to achieve, he adds.

What did work in that emergency was SMS (short message service) for blasting out brief messages. As Lawson explains, while signal strength at the time was not high enough for voice communication, SMS uses the carrier wave of the signal, so text messaging could occur via cell phone, BlackBerry, and smart phone. In fact, that is how one-on-one communication was primarily handled in the immediate aftermath of the storm. "Text messaging was the primary method of communication between those of us who evacuated and the team that remained behind, including the president," says Lawson. "The president used text messages to frame his communications to the community, and our public relations staff posted the messages to our emergency website." He notes that it took about three days to extract the on-site team from New Orleans and receive cell phones from Cingular (now AT&T) with a different area code (one without jammed circuits).

When CIO John Lawson moved from Katrina-ravaged Tulane to Western Washington University, he was pleased to find that the institution's modest emergency notification plans included the use of bullhorns, fire alarms, and even notice-posting human runners.

Tulane was one of the few Gulf-area institutions hit by the storm that maintained information on an emergency website in order to keep students, parents, staff, and others up-to-date as events unfolded and decisions were made. As days passed, simple blog-like entries eventually expanded to fuller website postings, teleconferences, videoconferences, and e-mail exchanges.

Still, Lawson points out, "I think one of our dangers is that sometimes we tend to rely on the technology when, really, an older method might be more efficient. For example, bullhorns may actually notify people faster than SMS." Maybe that's why, when Lawson moved to WWU and began participating in the emergency planning committee there, he wasn't surprised or dismayed to find that the institution's modest emergency notification plans included the use of bullhorns, fire alarms, and even human runners whose job it was to quickly post notices on doors.

"An emergency often will dictate which modes of communication you will use, so you need to have as many modes available as possible," he says. "Those modes will change over time, over the duration of the emergency. If you have a modern fire alarm system, it could be that the first thing you want to do is trip the alarm, and then clearly explain over the alarm's speaker phone what you need people to do, or else send police cars with their loudspeakers around the campus, or send runners out.


THE CHALLENGE FOR the emergency management committee at the University of New Mexico: Figure out how to get more campus community members signed onto the Omnilert service it subscribes to for emergency notification. Paula Loendorf, director of IT services, estimates that, currently, about 5,000 people have subscribed—still just a fraction of the 34,000 students and 20,000 faculty and staff at the university. But she expects the campus PR office to send out additional reminders to the campus community about the service, and to make it a part of freshman orientation.

Why not simply upload contact information already on record for the campus community? Says Loendorf: Database loads aren't part of the service, for a couple of reasons. Omnilert had initially offered the uploads when it started providing the service. "Schools would send huge data uploads," she reports. "But people weren't getting the messages because they hadn't updated information that might have changed, or because there were typos in the databases." Subsequently, the vendor explained to Loendorf that it had conducted focus groups with customers who suggested it would be better to have users sign up themselves. Once a subscriber signs up, the system sends out a validation code via e-mail or phone.

UNM has set a flag in the service so that subscribers will receive a message once a year, reminding them to update their contact details. "This was something so simple for us to do, and quite inexpensive," says Loendorf."We've had very good service from the company and we're happy that we've contracted the service." But, she says, the school will continue to look for newer, better means of handling emergency communications.

Like Omnilert, Roam Secure, the service used by the University of Maryland, is an opt-in program. In its first three weeks, about 4,500 people had enrolled; but Public Safety Officer Major Jay Gruber's goal is to get 25,000 people signed up. To that end, he's working on a campaign with the school's communication office, to ramp up participation.

"But having options at your disposal is essential: "If you've got a sniper, you're not going to send out people with bullhorns; they'll be a target," he points out. "Then you've got to shift as the emergency goes on. You might want to fill in [that first effort with] short detail via SMS, then get more detail out in an e-mail broadcast. In fact, you may need to use text-to-voice to make a phone call go out to those who live off campus, to tell them not to come to campus."

His most essential advice to other CIOs: "Right now, carefully inventory all the modes of communication you may be able to use. Think deeply about which is the right mode for various emergency scenarios that may arise." At the height of an emergency, he warns, you may have to choose something you had not expected to use, because of the circumstance. "But at least you've thought about it [beforehand] and have some idea of what you want to look for—not only in terms of the notification, but in terms of the continued communication with your constituents, parents, students, and employees."

2) Internalize the Plan via Practice

Prior to entering the higher ed field, Cindy Lawson (no relation to WWU's Lawson) had worked for 14 years with Ohio Electric, where she'd been trained extensively to handle crisis communication— a common practice particularly inside utilities that own nuclear facilities. In 1999, not long after Lawson became the public information officer for Texas A&M University, a four-story bonfire structure collapsed in the wee hours of the morning during a campus rally, killing 12 students and injuring 27. Coming onto the scene about 30 minutes after receiving news of the accident, recalls Lawson, "I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what am I going to do?'" Almost instantly, she reverted to training from her previous position with the utility company. "A&M didn't have a crisis communication plan," she says. "But I did; I knew the plan from the electric company." Her ability to stick to the plan—even a plan from a totally different organization—made Lawson an effective leader in the emergency, and she went on to lecture and train others based on that experience.

When a gun-wielding fugitive showed up on the University of New Mexico campus, an e-mail alerted students to stay inside their buildings. Unfortunately, many students weren't in front of a computer to receive e-mail—but they were out there texting.

Lawson, who has since joined the University of North Carolina as assistant to the chancellor for marketing and communications, says she's conducted hundreds of emergency communication drills in her lifetime, and they can be eyeopeners. "I don't think I've ever observed a drill where I didn't go back and revise a plan for my institution because I learned something [from the drill itself]. When you practice the plan, the drill shows you things you didn't anticipate, and may even reveal flaws in the system."

For Lawson, part of that preparation includes development of the communiqués her campus might expect to send out in a given type of emergency. "Typically, what happens at most institutions of higher learning is that communications are created throughout the event," she says. "And the public relations office sends that information out to media. Then one of two things happens: Folks at Student Affairs, Government Affairs, and Alumni offices take those communiqués and manually adapt them to respective audiences. Or, the campus PR office sends its communiqué out and it's immediately sent out verbatim [by those other groups] to those constituent groups." In the first case, she says, there's a lot of time wasted by people adapting the message for their particular audiences. In the second case, there's an assumption that one type of communication will fit all. In either case, there's no feedback loop—it's "one way" only.

In the case of the Texas A&M tragedy, she says, her team was getting questions from the media, which it posted to the web. Based on those queries, each VP put out information for his or her constituent group. When a question came up from one of those groups, that VP would get on the phone to Lawson for more information. That kind of process "becomes cumbersome and difficult to handle," says Lawson, who recalls that after the A&M tragedy, 300 members of the media were on site. "I have no idea how many Virginia Tech had, but I would guess at least that many," she offers. Handling such a tragedy quickly becomes "a logistical nightmare," she explains. But planning ahead, and practicing, practicing, practicing, can make all the difference.

7 Best Practices for Emergency Notification

IN THE AFTERMATH of Texas A&M's bonfire collapse, the university empowered one experienced individual to get the word out—resulting in timely, ongoing communications throughout the ordeal.

3) Expect to Make Decisions Based on Incomplete Information

Last year, WWU put its public safety officers through an "active shooter scenario, so they'd have some understanding of what might happen in a case like that," says John Lawson. The CIO maintains that the scenario helped participants understand what their roles would be in an emergency, and what the most appropriate mode of communication would be for any given crisis. His role as CIO, he says, is "to help coordinate the technology piece of that, and then participate as a member of the emergency team, thinking carefully about emergencies and what our response would be." But Lawson sees additional benefits of practicing for a crisis: "Conducting these exercises helps you understand that you won't have all the information you'll need to make a perfect decision," he says.

He believes that the administrators who made decisions at Virginia Tech did extremely well, given the situation they found themselves in. "In retrospect, we can look back and say, ‘Well, if they had just done this...' The reality was, they saw a situation that looked like a potential murder-suicide, then they received information that the shooter may have gone off campus, which, as it turned out, may have happened. That information was actually fairly accurate," he says. "It's not possible to make a perfect decision every time," Lawson insists. "But it is absolutely imperative that people practice, have the experience of trying to simulate various scenarios and acting on the [limited] information they may have, and then learn from it. Of course, along with that," says Lawson, "you've got to get that information out so that other individuals can also make their determinations about what's going to be best for them."

UNCW's Cindy Lawson brings to light another factor that must be taken into account in the decision-making process: People aren't necessarily working at their best level. During the bonfire structure collapse, "I was on my feet for 48 hours and slept 50 minutes," she discloses. "That's pretty excruciating. And because there are so many distractions and decisions that have to be made in a crisis, the more you have tools, systems, processes, and plans in place that are going to expedite the [crisis management and communication] process and make it as easy as possible, the better off you'll be."

4) The Fewer People Involved in Decision-Making and Communication, the Better

Before joining A&M, UNCW's Lawson had just come from another institution where, she says, the chancellor "micromanaged everything." So when she asked Ray Bowen, A&M president at the time of the bonfire crisis, "How do you want me to handle this?" he responded, "What do you think I hired you for? You make the decisions. Do the right thing." From that point, she says, "I made the decisions throughout that entire crisis about what messages I thought the institution needed to send out. I didn't have to get approval; I didn't have to go through a lengthy process. As a result, we were able to get out timely communications on an ongoing basis throughout that whole ordeal."

This is in contrast to what happens at most higher education institutions when a crisis occurs. Usually, says Lawson, "A number of senior leaders get together and start formulating what it is they want to tell a particular audience. The PR person may write it, but everybody may be in the room, which is cumbersome in itself. At A&M, with a different president, I remember [dealing] with a totally different crisis and 10 people in the room. It took them all day to write a single communication— four paragraphs. More often than not, I think that is the case." But it shouldn't be. Rely on a single empowered and experienced individual or, at most, a small, fast-moving team, to get the word out, say the pros. Before formulating those messages, says UNCW's Lawson, the questions to ask are these: What happens? Who needs to know? What do they need to know? How often do they need to know it? In what format? What are the best ways to reach them?


BOTH CINDY LAWSON at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and John Lawson (no relation) at Western Washington University are fans of the Public Information and Emergency Response (PIER) System, which has only recently entered the higher education arena (the WWU deployment was still being finalized as of this writing). PIER includes a suite of tools for distributing emergency notification via the expected means: website, e-mail, fax, SMS, text-to-voice, even digital display. But at its heart are the planning mechanisms it makes available to users, to pre-write different forms of messages, pre-populate distribution lists, and help manage the emergency or crisis communication process.

"More often than not, a crisis event is going to occur in a location like an administration building, auditorium, or classroom," says UNCW's Lawson."We've uploaded to PIER all of the buildings and their descriptions: what's housed in them, etcetera.We've tried to come up with as much background information as we can, as many different databases as we need, who needs to sign off on what. It really makes you think through that whole process." In fact, UNCW has developed databases for a multitude of groups: students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, members of the media, and the like. When a notification needs to be sent, says Lawson, "We can send messages out to all or some of those constituent groups or just one individual, with the press of one button. Can we do it without PIER? Sure. But it's usually multiple processes that are a lot more cumbersome."

5) One Size Does Not Fit All: Simultaneously Push Alerts in Different Formats

When a fugitive with a gun showed up on the campus of the University of New Mexico, the institution's emergency management committee, chaired by the police chief of the campus, immediately sent out e-mail to everyone on campus, telling them to stay inside their buildings. That message was then followed up with another when the crisis was over, advising the community that the individual had been apprehended. Unfortunately, many recipients, especially students, were unaware of the incident until hours later, simply because they weren't in front of a computer to receive e-mail.


PIER also provides a measure of redundancy on many levels, she explains. Not only does it provide multiple ways of reaching the same person, but if the website, e-mail systems, or even electricity goes out in Wilmington, she can turn to colleagues at other UNC campuses to perform the necessary communications. In the event that the entire state becomes inaccessible, she says, she can call PIER via landline or cell phone and dictate the messages to be sent out.

Along with PIER, Lawson says her campus also has an e-911 system that provides detailed location information for public safety officers within or outside of the university. The school uses emergency call boxes, but is just now considering whether to enable those to broadcast messages to anyone within earshot of a call box (which can act as a loudspeaker).

Says Lawson, "Whether it's the web, various software packages, databases, PIER, or some other product that can help us get the word out and do it faster and easier—how blessed we are and how important it is."

"I kept saying phone calls and e-mail are last on a student's list," remembers Director of IT Services Paula Loendorf, "but they're out there texting all day long." At the same time, Loendorf had been seeking a mechanism for alerting members of the Emergency Operations Center when an event required their attention. The mode being used at the time consisted of the police dispatcher making individual phone calls. Loendorf began researching options, conferred with peers at other campuses, conducted some online research, and ultimately found Omnilert e2Campus, a hosted service that allows for simultaneous contact via mobile phone, pager, PDA, e-mail, website, RSS, and digital signage. When the university president heard about it, he called Loendorf and asked, "Can you really do that?" The IT director and her team had the solution up and running 24 hours after the paperwork was complete. Two days later, thousands of campus community members had subscribed to TextMe UNM and had entered their contact details—up to two cell phone numbers and two e-mail addresses per person. (To date, Loendorf estimates that about 5,000 people have subscribed; still just a fraction of the 34,000 students and 20,000 faculty and staff at the university. See "The Opt-In Quest".)

Inside of those first 48 hours, the Albuquerque campus was the site of a chemical spill (right behind the building where Loendorf's team operates), and the system was put through its paces with an unanticipated test run: Because campus officials feared it might be a volatile spill, they locked down the site. After conferring with a campus PR representative, Loendorf's group pushed out a message about the site closure to subscribers, telling them to avoid the area. Understandably, the use of the service received a good deal of positive media coverage.

6) Pre-Define "Emergency," and Communicate It to the Community

A few weeks after the chemical spill, another incident arose on UNM's main campus, when an unidentified box was discovered in a parking structure. The city police arrived to detonate the package, which turned out to be an art student's project. "People on campus saw all the activity," says Loendorf, "and even students who worked in my department asked, ‘Why didn't you send a message?'" Soon after, an article in the Albuquerque Journal, "UNM Doesn't Sound Alarm Over Box," examined why the school hadn't used the new emergency notification system.

The incident spurred acting President David Harris to broadcast a campus message three days later, clarifying when the new notification system would be used. "The UNM Alert e-mail and the textmessage system are used only when the safety of the entire campus, or a large portion of it, are threatened," the message states. "UNM Alert and the textmessage system are not and have never been intended to be used when an incident is isolated, impacts a small area of campus, and poses no threat to safety.... The last thing we want to do is inundate people with alerts that don't mean anything to them. When the real alert comes, we fear that they won't respond or will not respond quickly enough. We do not want this system to become a nuisance, because the real danger will be people failing to react."

"Many institutions will be struggling with those sorts of issues," Loendorf maintains, adding, "Technology can [push out emergency information] very quickly. But it's how you use that technology to the best advantage, that is really open for debate."

7) Layer Your Approaches to Communication

Jay Gruber, a major with the University of Maryland Department of Public Safety, remembers well Sept. 24, 2001. A tornado ripped through campus, killing two students. "Prior to that day, there was no way to quickly alert our campus community to any problem," Gruber says. And "there was no way of knowing that bad weather was coming: We did not have NOAA [National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration] weather radios; we are not on the NOAA/[National Weather Service] system."

The tragic event pushed the university to grant Gruber the budget he needed to purchase a subscription to WeatherData's SkyGuard (storm intelligence and comprehensive weather risk-management and monitoring system), as well as spend $75,000 for a siren system from Federal Signal, which included three mechanical sirens and a digital activation and monitoring program.

7 Best Practices for Emergency Notification

at the University of Maryland
pushed administrators to
layer a weather risk-management
and monitoring system with
a comprehensive siren system.

Now, when there's a problem, the sirens' blast warns campus community members to move quickly and seek shelter. But, once they've found shelter, says Gruber, people want additional details about the emergency.

Until recently, that meant using the university website, the campus cable channel, and the FM and AM stations to disseminate information quickly. "The poor woman who does the university's home page and carries her laptop wherever she goes, is called 40 times a year," he says. "She hears, ‘This is an emergency. How long will it take you to get the information up?'" Then, his team of 10 dispatchers has five minutes to notify all the campus user groups through his office's 800 MHz radio system and the facility management work control center, which then alerts emergency center people through pagers, cell phones, and other devices. "If it's during business hours, we'll also send e-mails to deans, directors, and department heads," he says. "If we try to do a mega-mailing to everybody, it takes 40 minutes to generate; too long for an emergency."

So Gruber began researching emergency solutions that could notify the community, on campus and off, in multiple formats, quickly. Although he investigated a number of vendors, Roam Secure was a slam dunk for three reasons: 1) It already was in use by other public safety groups in the geographic area (and, in fact, his department had been invited by the City of College Park, where the university is located, to go through training and setup meetings when it was deployed there); 2) the university could purchase the system up front, for a one-time fee; and 3) a "rapid enrollment" feature enables users to subscribe via their cell phones. Gruber quickly contracted for the service.

The major's advice: "Have a layered approach. Just one platform isn't going to cut it. You need to have a siren system, text messaging, and loudspeakers, too. That way, you're going to reach as many people as you can." He concedes, "It's a big investment." But, "You can't let it lapse and push it off to the side. Following the tornado, I had a tremendous amount of support, but after a couple of years, people jumped off the bandwagon. After the Virginia Tech mass murder, everybody's on the bandwagon again." What does Gruber envision, going forward? "I anticipate that a year-and-a-half or two years from now, people won't be thinking about these things anymore," he says, noting that too often, concern about communication in emergency situations is cyclical: It comes and goes depending on what's happening in the world. "It's up to us to carry the torch to implement and maintain these systems."

::WEBEXTRAS :: "It's All About Risk" "Voices From the Sky: The Technology Is the Easy Part" "Repeat After Me: When It Happens on Our Campus, We Will Be Ready!" "Messaging Firms Atwitter Following Virginia Tech Massacre" "Can We Protect the Next Virginia Tech?"

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