Consider the following scenarios:

  • A “very small” spill of a chemical compound in a research laboratory sent 13 people to the hospital and led to evacuation of two floors of a campus building. No serious injuries resulted from exposure to the chemical, which was capable of causing symptoms ranging from headaches to death, but there was uncertainty about the dangers involved.

  • Swollen with abnormal rainfall, a river running through a university campus spilled its banks, causing more than $740 million in damages. Several buildings were damaged beyond repair, leaving thousands of students confused about where to go for their classes.

  • A depressed man barged into a middle school office attempting to take the principal hostage. As the two men struggled, police arrived and arrested the attacker. The school was locked down as the media reported news of the event. Nervous parents waited for information that their children were safe.

These three events, all occurring within the past 15 months, are examples of the types of emergencies — natural and manmade — that affect campuses across the country on an almost daily basis. None of these incidents resulted in a loss of life, but each case underscores the risks when a campus cannot communicate quickly and reliably with its employees, students and parents.

Multiple solutions

In the case of an emergency, campus administrators have many ways to alert students, faculty and staff. Here are a few:

  • Sirens

    Mounted atop poles or buildings, sirens can emit a piercing tone that gains people's attention. But is the siren signaling an approaching tornado? A flash flood? A chemical spill? A terrorist attack? It may be one of the above or dozens of other scenarios, each of which might require a different response. Without more information, a siren may do more harm than good if people react in confusion or panic.

  • Text message/e-mail blast

    Internet-based systems can simultaneously send thousands of text or voice messages to people's cell phones, landlines, PDAs, laptop and desktop computers. It provides information and instructions rapidly on what protective action to take. Because nearly everyone on campus has access to one of these devices, this type of notification can be very useful and precise. Administrators or security personnel can provide highly detailed information, which is vital in a crisis. Also, the messages can be sent in many different languages to meet the preference of the recipients, including parents. Messages can be composed on a computer or by voice message over a landline or cell phone. This means school officials can create the message from a remote location in the event that a security office or administration building has been evacuated or power has been lost.

But this technology has two potential downsides. Employees, parents and students must sign up for this service, and 100 percent compliance is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. And during an emergency, both wired and cellular phone lines may become overloaded and crash. This would limit the number of messages that can be sent when a crisis stretches beyond minutes and into hours.

  • Outdoor voice systems

    This type of system is ideal for large campuses where many people may be outdoors. Unlike a siren, these systems use specialized speaker technology to provide intelligible voice commands that can be heard clearly up to a quarter-mile away. The speaker arrays can be mounted permanently on poles or buildings or on a trailer for portability. Detailed instructions can be repeated continually, or new information can be added as situations change. Many of these systems have solar panels to provide power even if electricity to the campus has been lost. However, these systems do not reach people indoors or in transit to campus.

  • Intercoms

    An intercom enables direct communication into classrooms, offices, residence halls and other campus buildings. However, they cannot be operated without electricity and are helpful only to those people in intercom-equipped rooms.

  • LED signs

    LED signs are one of the best ways to alert employees, parents and students as they arrive at a campus by bus, car, bicycle or on foot. The messages can warn of dangers or announce that a campus has been closed. Visitors can be turned away at main campus entrances rather than add more people to an already difficult situation. However, because of their relatively small size, these signs can provide only very basic warnings.

Using a combination

Because of the possible limitations of each system, a campus should not rely on any single technology. Using redundant systems will increase the likelihood that vital information will reach people when they need it most. A combination of a siren, text-message system, outdoor voice speakers, intercoms and LED signs will give campus administrators and security staff the best opportunity for disseminating vital information during an emergency.

Electricity is critical for operating many of these systems, so redundancy in power sources also is critical. In case of a power loss, have a battery pack, a generator or solar system available for backup.

And that is not the end of communications opportunities. Two-way radios provide a communications channel. Almost all campuses have an Internet site that can be used to post updates and warnings that will be available to those near a computer or a phone with Web access. An advantage of this source is that updates can be posted frequently and remotely.

Many colleges and universities, as well as a few high schools, have a radio or television station. During a crisis, these broadcast outlets can disseminate information. Also, some campus stakeholders may turn to local commercial radio and television stations, as well as local news websites for information. So be sure to keep these outlets updated.

Remember that a campus notification policy should be part of a larger emergency plan. As with any plan, it is important to put it in writing, share it with anyone involved — and then practice, practice and practice it.

Also, remember to incorporate other security tools that already exist on campus. For example, a camera system can play a vital role in making quick decisions at a time when events are transpiring quickly. If an evacuation is in order, cameras can help administrators and security personnel make sure the selected site is safe.

The goal of an emergency communications plan should be to make as much information as possible available through many different communications paths. In an emergency, when people are in danger, information is critical. By planning ahead and using redundant systems and outlets, lives may be saved and property damage limited.

Fiel is the public safety advisor for ADT Security Services, Alexandria, Va. For six years he was executive director of school security for Washington, D.C., Public Schools, where he managed 163 school campuses. He can be contacted at pfiel@adt.com.

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