Not getting the (text) message

Forty percent of campuses encourage students to sign up for alerts during orientation.
Forty percent of campuses encourage students to sign up for alerts during orientation.

It is a typical morning on campus, with students heading to class and professors and staff arriving for work, when suddenly there is an emergency. It could be a flood, a gas leak, or an intruder on campus. How quickly can the campus notify the community? How many people can the campus reach in those critical minutes immediately following an emergency?

Traditional methods of mass notification, such as sirens, television, and radio, only provide critical information to the community in a timely manner if they tune in. And, in the event of a power outage, those methods might not be available at all.

In recent years, higher-education institutions have been forced to re-evaluate emergency response systems, including mass-notification solutions. Many institutions have added eMail and text messaging to their mass-communication methods roster, which works well with today’s generation of college students, who already rely heavily on cell phones and text messages.

In an effort to benchmark the use of campus emergency alert notification systems, CDW-G surveyed students, faculty, and IT professionals to understand their awareness of and participation in these systems.

If a message goes out to the community …

More than 17.9 million students around the country are enrolled in community colleges and four-year institutions. Factor in faculty and staff at those institutions, and more than 21.5 million people live, work, and study on U.S. campuses. They give us 21.5 million reasons to improve mass-notification methods and participation.

The results of CDW-G’s survey, published in its Higher-Education Emergency Alert Report, show that while the majority of higher-education institutions have a mass-notification system, participation in mass-notification programs is not 100 percent. Getting the community to participate is critical to a successful program, but 12 percent of students and 13 percent of faculty reported not even knowing if their institution had a system.

… does anyone receive it?

To improve participation, campuses are employing a variety of tactics, including promoting mass notification via web sites, student newspapers, and web links in eMail signatures and on campus vehicles.

But institutions might be missing a prime opportunity to improve participation.

Just 40 percent of institutions report that they encourage students to sign up for alerts during orientation. When asked how institutions can increase student participation, student respondents overwhelmingly—and unexpectedly—said participation should be mandatory. Yes, that’s right—students think participation should be mandatory.

Compounding the awareness challenge is that some institutions still do not have emergency alert programs in place. Community colleges are at particular risk.

Almost half of all U.S. undergraduates attend community colleges; however, these schools lag in emergency alert awareness and participation. Only 62 percent of community colleges have a modern emergency alert system, which includes eMail and text messages, according to the survey. Four-year institutions fare better, with 85 percent of public institutions and 87 percent of private institutions reporting that they have a modern emergency alert system.

What does an emergency alert system look like?

Today, technology plays a pivotal role in emergency alert systems. An effective system uses existing data and voice networks to deliver pre-recorded or live messages to alert the community of emergencies and give residents instructions, such as evacuating a building or going to pre-assigned shelters.

Comprehensive emergency alert systems enable administrators and campus safety personnel to immediately contact every member of the community through phone calls, text messages, instant messages, eMail, and other alerts on the following devices:

  • Internet Protocol-based (IP) phones
  • Analog and digital phones
  • Desktop and notebook computers
  • Mobile and smart phones
  • Fax machines and pagers

In addition, these systems can broadcast messages throughout the campus, indoors and outdoors, through:

  • Loudspeakers and paging systems
  • Digital signage, such as LCD or plasma screens in buildings and throughout campus
  • Sirens or alarms

Institutions also might want to consider video surveillance cameras to enhance a mass-notification system. Video cameras can work as a standalone system separate from a mass-notification system, but linking the two systems has its benefits. For example, some camera systems offer add-on technology that analyzes sounds and video, and notifies campus police if it detects gunshots or other dangerous activity.

A call to action

Based on the survey results and its work with higher-education institutions, CDW-G recommends that higher-ed administrators consider the following to improve participation in emergency alert programs:

  • Register at orientation: Institutions should promote emergency alert systems aggressively to students and parents during orientation (for freshmen and new students) and move-in days (for upperclassmen) to move closer to full campus participation.
  • Recruit the professors: Faculty are key to ensuring the entire campus is aware of and participates in an institution’s emergency alert system. Administrators should reach out to faculty specifically and encourage them to promote participation with their students.
  • Apply parental pressure: Consider how the institution will transmit information to parents during a crisis. Enable parents to sign up for alerts, which can result in higher student participation.
  • Market aggressively: Institutions should regularly review their alert systems and enhance their outreach programs to encourage greater participation in the community.

In an emergency situation, where time is of the essence, institutions need to deliver critical information to students, faculty, and staff.

By harnessing a full range of traditional and newer communication options, institutions have the ability to reach the community immediately with critical information wherever they are.

Houston Thomas is the public safety business development manager for CDW Government Inc.

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