The concept of “the fog of war” brings to mind the chaos of smoke-covered battlefields, along with the randomness inherent in any rapidly developing situation. The term is used most often to illustrate the difficulty military commanders have getting accurate information while a battle is being fought. Sketchy and often inaccurate information obtained through the confusion of battle can lead to decisions based on imperfect information.

These conditions may be similar to the stresses administrators experience during crises on their campuses. They strain to get an accurate picture of what has just occurred so they can make the best decision about safeguarding students, faculty and staff. An ideal solution would alleviate the “fog of war” and allow administrators to share information with a push of a button. New technologies may help, but no single method will alleviate all issues pertaining to imperfect information in a crisis.

Identify constituencies

School and university administrators first must determine the groups with whom they will be interacting during a crisis and the best means to communicate with these groups.

Much like military commanders, they must use multiple methods to develop a multi-channel emergency notification system (ENS) that will enable information-sharing during and after a crisis with the affected groups.

Administrators will need to contact students, faculty and staff during a crisis. However, communicating with these groups can be complicated; when a crisis occurs, some may be on campus and some may be elsewhere. Schools and universities also are likely to have contractors, vendors or community members on campus. All those on a campus will have their own preferences about how they would like to receive emergency communications.

Leaders must determine the timeframe needed to get in touch with their constituencies. Some groups will need to be notified immediately; others may have longer time windows, from one hour to several days. For instance, in the case of an active shooter on campus, communicating immediately with all constituencies is vital. A natural disaster like a hurricane that is several days away has a longer time window for emergency communication. In these types of emergencies, a message received a day or two after being sent still is effective.

Take your pick

Decisionmakers also must determine where people will be and the methods, high- and low-tech, that can be used to communicate with them. Currently, text messaging seems to be the most popular method referred to when discussing an ENS. Text messaging can reach large numbers of people quickly, but it may not be the best method for every communication need. Obtaining accurate mobile phone numbers for every faculty and staff member and student can be difficult. Administrators should evaluate the effectiveness of other communication methods such as e-mail and voicemail. Even low-tech methods, such as posting flyers on bulletin boards, should be explored.

When deciding which kinds of systems to put into place, administrators need to consider the varying support requirements that each method requires. These requirements can range from relatively inexpensive methods such as making copies of flyers for people to post on campus, to high-end servers with fiber-optic backbones running throughout the campus. A cross-functional team should be involved in selecting the communication methods to ensure that a particular method is suitable. Campus security, information technology staff and administrators need to be on the same page when deciding to acquire a system — particularly for those that require more human and capital resources.

At a recent conference for IT professionals in higher education, one university described its purchase of hardware and software to be used to send text messages and phone calls to more than 50,000 faculty, staff and students in the event of a crisis. However, they selected the system without adequate cross-functional representation. When the university tested the system, administrators found that its phone system didn't have enough trunk lines to make all the outgoing calls, and the system failed. After the test, the university concluded that it needed to buy more equipment and add phone lines to meet the crisis requirements. Input from a broad-based emergency communications team could have helped campus officials recognize that the infrastructure could not support the system being considered. An alternative communication method using an off-site hosted solution might have been more feasible if the true cost of the system had been known.

Institutions also must consider whether to use in-house solutions during a crisis. If there is a power or network outage, can the ENS be used? An ENS is only as good as its backup systems, such as generators, uninterruptible power sources (UPS), and alternate data centers that allow continued usage during an on-campus crisis. Allowing for both in-house and hosted solutions creates the redundant systems that are vital for uninterrupted communications during and after a crisis.

Procedures and guidelines

Even the best ENS will be ineffective without proper guidelines for using the system. Examining the circumstances surrounding the April 2007 campus massacre of students and staff members in Blacksburg, Va., the Virginia Tech Review Panel found that the university had an ENS that was capable of sending e-mail and phone messages. However, “the protocol for sending an emergency message in use on April 16 was cumbersome, untimely, and problematic when a decision was needed as soon as possible,” according to the panel.

When developing ENS guidelines, it is just as important to determine the feasibility and timeliness of the protocol used to send an emergency message as it is on which ENS to use. Will it be possible to get approval from a top administrator or convene a crisis-management team to make decisions in a timely manner during a crisis? One of the keys to fighting through the fog is disseminating accurate, timely information so people can act quickly.

Procedures for most normal messages tend to be somewhat bureaucratic, often requiring approval from the public-relations office or even a superintendent or university president. For many types of crisis, the standard approval process for mass communication is not adequate for sending timely messages. One way to overcome bureaucratic and time constraints is to determine which threats are most likely to occur at a campus and develop pre-formatted, pre-approved messages that can be sent via e-mail, text message or voicemail through the ENS. At the end of these messages, campus planners should add a statement that additional information will be sent out when available. This allows for a quick response from those affected by a crisis.

Once a decision is made to launch a message using the ENS, protocols should be in place to determine who has system access to send the message. If too few people have the access and authority to send an emergency message, the institution runs the risk that no one will be available during a crisis to launch a warning. But if too many people have access, an unapproved or unwarranted message may be sent out.

Education institutions should develop procedures where key individuals have access to the system and can send out preapproved messages for certain identified situations, such as severe weather warnings or a shooting on campus. Other messages, such as campus closures or evacuations, require additional approval from key administrators or a designated crisis-management team.

Plummer is chief project administrator for South Texas College (STC), McAllen, and is a certified Project Management Professional. Johnson has taught American government at the college for seven years, and is a former department chair and program coordinator at STC.

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