It has been eight years since the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech. This incident was a reality check like no other, and it brought emergency management to the forefront in educational institutions across the country. In the years since, all institutions of higher learning have worked aggressively to implement crisis communication strategies to ensure the ability of campus-wide communication with and the safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors.

Technology is changing quickly, as are the needs of campus communities. People are now using multiple internet-connected devices, including cell phones, computers, and tablets, which creates opportunities for a variety of new channels of communication. However, these multiple channels represent many new variables that could potentially impede or delay the receipt of emergency alert notification. For example, cell phones need to be turned on to receive a signal, and the aggregate carrier network must be functioning in order for someone to receive a call or text. When an email is sent, it relies on the system infrastructure of whatever email application is used. Considering the large number of people who would receive an emergency alert message simultaneously, system capacity and performance need to be considered when planning such a system.

For any messaging to be effective, the audience must also be defined. A university setting includes a variety of audiences: students, faculty, staff and visitors, which means that all groups must be quickly informed should an emergency arise. While you can send an alert message to the email or phones of registered students and employees, these methods do not work for reaching visitors.  

To reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible, the University of Michigan implemented a multimodal approach to communicating potential life-threatening emergencies and recommended actions anywhere on campus. When the University of Michigan’s Department of Public Safety & Security (DPSS) determines an emergency alert is necessary, different modes of communication are deployed.

All University of Michigan students, faculty and staff are automatically registered to receive an email when an emergency alert deploys. U-Michigan also offers an opt-in option so students and employees can receive texts and phone calls in addition to the email. For visitors or those unable to receive an email or call, the alert message is posted on the University’s primary website, the DPSS website, and various social media sites. Digital Signs are also used to display the alert to notify anyone in a University building.  

Digital signs are used for multiple purposes, which include educating people about what they need to do in life-threatening emergency situations. Units on campus can create safety campaigns with information (relevant to their buildings and location) about what to do and where to go in specific crisis situations.

Digital signage is growing in popularity on university campuses. While many of these networked displays were originally installed in high traffic public areas specifically to support crisis communication across campus, they are now being deployed on behalf of individual departments who see the benefit of having the opportunity to change and update messaging targeted specifically for their student populations.

Amanda Grabowski, Business Systems Analyst at the University of Michigan has been providing technical and functional support to the campus community for 16 years. In her role of Business Systems Analyst, Grabowski primarily supports the digital signage service on campus. In the past year, she has been part of a team working with the Department of Public Safety & Security to improve how emergencies are communicated to the campus community. With over 300 signs in over 50 different units, Grabowski has a great deal of experience with different hardware, software and content specific to digital signage." providing technical and functional support to the campus community.