Crisis Communication

March 1, 2009
Repeat after me: It's okay to be redundant.

When an emergency occurs at a school or university, a vital element of the response is getting the word out. Students, staff, visitors and the community need to know whether they are in danger and what action to take: stay put, leave the campus, take shelter.

After some investigations concluded that the lack of timely campuswide notification at Virginia Tech may have contributed to the enormity of the 2007 shooting deaths there, higher-education institutions have focused greater attention on providing an effective way to notify all those connected to campus when a crisis is occurring. On a college campus, making sure a communication system actually is communicating with everybody can be a difficult goal.

Realizing that one communications avenue might not reach everybody, higher-education institutions are using systems that communicate messages in numerous ways. In most contexts, redundancy is considered inefficient; but in crisis communications, it can be vital in disseminating the message. A recent paper from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities identifies about two dozen types of notification devices:


    Cell phones: Their widespread use helps spread messages quickly; text capabilities provide flexibility in delivering information. However, some users may have their phones turned off, and wireless transmissions may be weak or disrupted in certain parts of a campus.

  • E-mail: A message can be distributed quickly throughout a school community, but its effectiveness depends on recipients being in a position to receive their e-mail.

  • Sirens, bells, strobe lights: These are effective in letting people on campus know an emergency exists, but without some other information, people hearing the alarms won't know what the emergency is and how they should respond.

  • Web pages: When a community is unsure of developments, a school's Web page can provide a consistent message, with regular updates, if needed. However, people won't see the information unless they seek out the Web page.

  • Visual electronic displays: These are effective at disseminating information in public spaces, and campus officials know the specific areas that the message will reach.

  • TV and radio announcements: Using these media is an effective way to get a message out to an entire community (and beyond), but the intended recipients need to know if there is a specific station or channel they should tune into for emergency information. TV and radio is not a good choice if a school is trying to deliver messages to a limited audience.

  • Other communications methods: Call boxes with panic buttons; conventional phones; faxes; hotlines and 800 numbers; intercoms; portable loudspeakers and bullhorns; pop-up messages on computer networks; pagers; posters; public-address systems; satellite phones; security staff and runners; social networking websites; text messaging; and TTY phones for the hearing impaired.

Less than 5
Percentage of higher-education institutions that, prior to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, said they included mobile phones as part of their emergency-notification system.

Percentage of higher-education institutions that said they conducted a review of their campus safety and security policies and procedures in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre.

Of the institutions that conducted security reviews, the percentage whose review included an examination of emergency notification/broadcast alert systems.

Source: Midwest Higher Education Compact, “The Ripple Effect of Virginia Tech: Assessing the Nationwide Impact on Campus Safety and Security Policy and Practice,” May 2008

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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