On a Sunday late in May 2011, the campus of Missouri Southern State University, located in Joplin, Mo., was hosting the Joplin High School graduation. Within 30 minutes of the commencement’s conclusion an EF5 tornado took aim at the town. Although the regular students, usually numbering nearly 6,000, had gone home for summer break, the campus was still full of visitors for the graduation.

Fortunately, the MSSU campus had an emergency communication system that provided mass notification capabilities inside the university buildings as well as exterior areas, using powerful speaker arrays. Only recently installed, the system had been tested every Monday morning, but this was the first real emergency. When the tornado warning was issued, the university took immediate action: “A tornado warning has been issued for our area,” the speakers said. “Move to the lowest floor away from windows and stairways. DO NOT EXIT a building. If outdoors, move to a building immediately and seek shelter.” The university was lucky and did not get hit by the very large and unpredictable tornado. But if it had been, the visitors and campus personnel were sheltered in the safest buildings on campus and knew where to go, thanks to the clear, concise instructions.

Now imagine what would have happened with an “old style” system of sirens that give a distinct signal for fire and another for weather. Students are typically drilled in the beginning of the school year how to respond to these signals and would – presumably – know what to do. But would a visitor? Just look at what happened to the Costa Concordia cruise ship when it ran aground in January 2012.  Twenty-eight passengers and crew were killed in the accident, and the chief complaint of survivors was that they weren’t given clear directions on what to do immediately following the incident. In an age that is all about information, people have a high expectation that they will be informed and given instructions when an unexpected event occurs.


A Tragic Awakening

In April 2007, a Virginia Tech student opened fire in a dormitory and classroom building, killing 32 people before committing suicide (the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history). After that tragedy colleges and universities around the country became hyperaware of the need to have some sort of mass notification or emergency communication system. And, in 2008, the Clery Act, which requires all higher education institutions to disclose information about crime on their campuses, was amended to require that they immediately notify the campus community upon confirmation of a significant emergency involving an immediate threat to students, staff or visitors. 

Almost overwhelmingly colleges across the U.S. began adopting text messaging services, which will text students’ cell phones in the event of an emergency, or even a non-emergency, such as class cancellations.

A December 2011 White Paper, “Detailed Analysis of U.S. College and University Annual Clery Act Reports,” sponsored by Siemens, found that virtually every academic institution reviewed had at least one way to communicate with the campus community during an emergency, and web-based alerting systems, including SMS/text, email, website postings and voicemail were the predominant modes of communication.

These systems are handy tools and a logical communication step for a young population used to doing everything by cell phone. However, these services have their limitations. For example, they rely on student participation in signing up for the service. And in an actual emergency, sheer numbers can slow down the service and delay messages.

“Ever since Virginia Tech everyone seems to want or need [emergency communication],” says Stefan Dodd, manager, OneCard operations, at Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, Mass. “For us, we already had a system that allowed us to send out voicemails and emails. We had that ability to send mass email and voicemail and live phone messages.” But the university realized that wasn’t enough.

Officials at Fitchburg decided to invest in a Wide-area Emergency Broadcast System (WEBS) Emergency Notification system, provided by Talk-a-Phone. Consisting of a tower with four large 40-watt speakers, the system allows the university to provide real-time instructions campus-wide.

“We have a lot of people visiting that are not signed up for the message service,” Dodd says. “We needed a way for them to know that something was going on that they need to be aware of. Also, if students don’t have their phone on, they would still be able to hear the audio instructions. We also have digital signage boards in the foyers of all the buildings. Those have the capability to put alert messages on as well.”

Dodd points out that the digital signage and messaging services preceded the Virginia Tech tragedy. “But there was definitely more focus on mass notification after that incident. People looked at the holes in the communication. Who couldn’t we communicate to in an event like this and how could we fill those gaps?”

Fitchburg University has not had the occasion to use their emergency notification system, but they are glad it is there. “The biggest benefit to us is piece of mind that we have the ability to communicate with everyone on and off campus in the event of an emergency,” Dodd says. “It is a system we hope we never have to use.”


Layered Security

In the post-Virginia Tech environment, the stakes are high. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education found Virginia Tech liable and fined the university $55,000 under the Clery Act for waiting too long to notify students after the shootings. That decision was overturned in late March 2012, despite a jury finding the university negligent. The controversial ruling is likely to be appealed. Yet just days after that ruling, a former student went on a shooting rampage at Oikos University, a small Christian college in Oakland, California, killing seven people.         

The Siemens White Paper points out that a comprehensive, multi-modal mass notification system that incorporates various layers of messaging and is managed from a single command center is the most effective way to reach the maximum number of people and ensure message consistency. Yet less than half the schools are using this approach to its full effect. Perhaps a large reason for that is economics. In recent years college funding has taken a big hit, and a lot of projects have been put on the back burner. Working within those constraints, colleges are doing what they can with what they have. The more “layers” they can add to their communication, the more effective the system will be.

Las Positas College, a community college located in Livermore, Calif., just 40 miles east of Oikos University, also elected to install the WEBS system a few years ago after Virginia Tech. “Our campus takes safety very seriously,” says Sean Prather, chief of campus safety. “We were a very small community college that grew. Through a bond measure we were able to get funding to building more buildings and had a security master plan done by a consultant.”

Las Positas uses a texting service, and their inside communication is a part of a new fire alarm system they installed two years ago. “The fire system is also the public address system. From a central control panel I can pick up a microphone and go live or send a pre-determined message like ‘shelter in place.’”

In 2010 the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) fire code changed to the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. The major change is that the fire alarm is no longer king in an emergency. The emergency communication can override the fire system and take precedence in situations where the direction is something other than “exit the building.” For example, following the Columbine shootings in the late 90s, plans were discovered that would have involved pulling the fire alarm and waiting for students to exit so they could shoot them.

This code change means that more fire alarm systems and integrated systems are being designed and installed to double as the emergency notification system inside of a building, as was the case at Las Positas.

“Included in our fire alarm system were speakers to be used for mass notification inside every building. The WEBS call boxes are for the exterior,” Prather explains.

The college was able to test the system in a real event last year, he says. “The local police used our fire system speakers because they believed there was a missing person on our campus. They used the system to call out to that person, who was then located.”

The ability to reach out throughout the campus is comforting to Prather. “I can be at home and send emergency texts from my laptop computer or my smart phone at a restaurant. I now have the ability to reach everyone on campus so they will be able to hear the message, which is something we didn’t have just a few years ago. Before we had a bunch of bullhorns.”


Communication Support

Beyond the more traditional methods of communication, many colleges and universities are looking at other ways of keeping both students and others informed and providing more information to those who need to have it.

“One of the things I am looking at is incorporating Facebook and Twitter,” Prather says. “So if we do have a lockdown and need to update information, we can set up an emergency Facebook page and send out a text alert telling people to link to that page for additional information. One of the biggest problems in an emergency is that everyone wants to know what is going on. Parents and faculty want to know. The media wants to know. Social media is another way to help people stay informed.”

This can be a smart way to reach a crowd for whom email is considered “formal” communication. Most young people today communicate primarily through social networks, and this can be a logical place to reach them. But like text and email services, it does require active participation and “buy-in” from students and others.

“We do an extensive marketing campaign for our messaging alerts,” Dodd says. “We talk about it at student orientation, email them the first couple days of school. I would guess we have about 80 percent participation among full-time students.” Dodd also sees the relevance for social media. “If the university has a Facebook page and people ‘like’ that page you can do a notification based on that.”

One campus with a very high participation level is Scripps College, an all women’s college within the Claremont Consortium of colleges in Claremont, Calif. “Most people here voluntarily provide it,” says Lola Trafecanty, director of grounds. The college has a 98 percent participation in the text alert service. “It is highly suggested they give their cell numbers. Parents are given information on it in their information packet. We are a pretty close-knit community and as an all women’s college perhaps we started focusing on this a bit earlier. But the shootings definitely reminded us of how many back-ups we need and training.”

Using the ConnectED platform, Scripps allows students and staff to receive texts, phone calls and emails simultaneously. But they are also looking into installing cameras to support their emergency response efforts and add an extra layer to their communications system.

“We just received approval for phase one of installing cameras where the consortium’s campus safety office would be the only ones with access to the video of what is happening on campus,” Trafecanty says. “The real reason for the cameras is not so much for security as for emergency response. The cameras will be placed where people collect for certain emergencies like earthquakes. These are the key areas so we can see what is physically happening on the field. If we don’t see people in a certain area, we will know there may be injuries in a specific building.”

Scripps also uses an outdoor speaker system. Similar to the WEBS system, this system from GAI-Tronics uses hand-held radios to isolate zones or do mass broadcasts, she explains. “In this part of California, the weather is nice, and students are often outside between classes or on the lawn studying. This system allows me to reach those students.” Like others, Scripps is also working on a Facebook emergency preparedness page.

Using the layered approach to emergency communication, colleges and universities are coming up with some pretty creative and effective ways to communicate. But there will always be emergencies, and with each new event – be it weather or something man-made – they learn more and figure out increasingly effective ways to reach everyone.