Campus crises and digital signage

Most campus personnel responsible for emergency response are aware of the legal guidelines presented in the Clery Act, which requires institutions to provide timely warnings of crimes that represent a threat to the safety of students or employees.

Digital signage has become a common tool is campus crisis communication.

In addition to these requirements, campus safety staffs must be able to identify a crisis and execute strategies in compliance with state and federal statutes.

To meet this burden, you have to invest in careful planning, flexible systems and continuous testing to ensure all of your communication methods are optimized for emergency effectiveness. Campuses must be prepared to leverage a wide set of technologies to get the word out as fast as possible, in the most effective manner and across as many channels as possible.

Defining a crisis

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) does not define what constitutes a “significant emergency” or “dangerous situation”, so campuses need to define their emergencies long before one occurs.

A series of scenarios should be explored and prepared for, with detailed instructions for each. Consider every possible emergency on an organizational, local, state, national and global level:  severe weather, fire, violence, hazmat, terrorism threat, etc.

Knowing how to define a crisis and then immediately trigger a reliable action plan is crucial because the health and safety of your audience depends on the speed and accuracy of your response. A thorough crisis communications plan can play a significant role by transforming the unexpected into the anticipated, and clarifying how to respond.

Building a plan

Your plan should outline what you need to communicate, how, when and to whom. Here are eight basic steps to get you started:

1. Start at the top: Get your plan authorized by management and legal in advance and get management to integrate crisis training into orientations, budgets, and to approve time for testing and drills.

See page 2 for details on how digital signage can be a key part of crisis communication…

2. Keep it simple: Be sure your plan is clear and easy to execute. Streamline as much as possible, with each person clear on the chain of authority (and that chain should be as short as possible).

3. Roleplay and test: Roleplay scenarios for every conceivable emergency on a regular basis. Be sure to test the overall system – not just parts of it – so you can identify and correct weak areas of the plan.

4. Be fast but be smart: Speed is essential in a crisis, but if you give wrong or incomplete information, it can make things worse. Protocols, alert messages and timelines should be established in advance.

5. Cover all your bases: Consider everywhere people might be on site during a crisis and detail how you’ll reach them. Also, prep contact lists, press releases and social media posts in advance to keep families, the community and media in the loop.

6. Consider communication methods: There are so many ways to broadcast alerts that trying to use them all can slow you down. Run drills to find out which are best for each situation, and never rely on just one way to reach people.

7. Build in redundancy: Many emergencies can affect power sources and networks, so your crisis scenarios should have contingencies built in for the failure or unavailability of any or all technologies.

8. Think about the future: Be sure to include recovery tactics in your plan. Getting up and running and showing progress toward normality after a crisis is essential to calming people and restoring their trust.

Technology Challenges

The main problem facing campuses that want to deploy a comprehensive alert structure is the number of disparate systems they have to tie together:

·     Paging/Intercoms

·     Fire Alarms/Sirens

·     Telephone Networks

·     Digital Signage Systems

·     Text Messaging (SMS)

·     Email

·     Websites

·     Social Media

None of these systems are designed to work together, and a lot of them don’t have a mechanism to let them talk to each other. The time to activate and send an alert message across each of these methods during a crisis could be calamitous.

Try to seek out solutions with APIs (or interfaces) capable of being triggered by external sources. Some technologies may already have built-in data triggers. Others, such as legacy contact closure devices (fire alarm handles) need to be converted to a data system like computer-aided facility management software.

Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) provides a simple but general format for exchanging emergency alerts over all kinds of networks, and is based on best practices identified both in academic research and real-world experience.

Campuses can use CAP to trigger alerts across all technologies designed to recognize those triggers, but you’ll have to identify one point of origin to activate all the others and remain consistent. This is the system most campuses will use to send alerts to digital signs.

Digital Signage for Alerts

Digital signage already has strong adoption in higher education, and it’s a powerful resource to have in your crisis communications plan toolkit.

Centrally-managed digital signage software makes it quick and easy to push urgent updates, even to mobile devices and remote campuses.

One of the main advantages of digital signs is their high visibility when placed in public areas. Whatever content management software you’re using should have the ability to interrupt service with alert notices. Your warning capabilities will depend on the system you have, so you’ll need to verify the exact features and configurations available.

In most cases, you’ll want your digital signage messages to state what to do in an emergency, not the alert notice itself. People need to know where to go to reach safety. (It doesn’t do any good to broadcast a tornado warning without telling people where they can take shelter.)

Message saturation is essential. Consider the number of displays, locations and placement of your screens in the context of emergency situations. If you only have one display per building, you’ll need to add more. If your screens are near exits, you’ll need to put some in lounges and other common spaces.

There’s no time that can better demonstrate the power of effective communications than during a crisis.

A well-crafted crisis plan that maximizes the communication technologies available – and minimizes the time to activate all of them – can save lives and lessen the strain of an emergency on both your people and your organization.

Author Sean Matthews, President, Visix, will presenting a Roundtable Discussion entitled, “Campus Alerts: Incorporating Digital Signage Into Your Crisis Communication Plan,” at Digital Signage Expo 2014 at the Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas, which will take place February 12-13. For more information about DSE or to register for this or any other educational seminar or workshop and learn about digital signage go to


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