Education administrators throughout the country spend a lot of time and money planning crisis response procedures they hope they will never have to use. But the leadership team at Virginia Tech was called to action at 8:25 a.m. on April 16 of this year.
At that time, the university president, executive vice president and provost gathered to determine a way to inform students, faculty, staff and the public that two homicides had occurred at a residence hall on campus at about 7:15 a.m.
At 9:26 a.m., the administrators e-mailed a message to the campus community, notifying them of the incident and asking them to report any suspicious activity. The university transmitted emergency recordings and broadcast a telephone message to campus phones. It also posted a news release on its Web site.
Unfortunately, this information did not stop Seung-Hui Cho from walking into a classroom building minutes later and killing 30 more students and instructors before taking his own life.
In the following days, conversation circled around what could have been done to prevent the second attack. Should the university have informed the campus community sooner? Would the ability to send text messages to students have made a difference? These questions may never be answered related to Virginia Tech. But education institutions across America are gaining insight about what can be done to better prepare for an emergency. Turning these questions on themselves, many are asking, “What would we do if it happened here?”
Finding a method
Eager for a solution, but trying to avoid reinventing the wheel, school and university administrators are bringing the topic of emergency communication from the backburner and making it the focal point of their professional conversations.
“With any crisis…communication is your key to surviving the incident,” says John Heiderscheidt, safety coordinator at Elgin School District U-46 (Ill.). “If you don’t have good communication, you aren’t going to have good management.”
Many universities are considering purchasing communications systems that can be used to e-mail messages, send text messages to cell phones and deploy phone calls when immediate communication is needed.
“Certainly, it’s a minority of schools that have these systems in place,” says David Wirth, manager of technical operations at Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. “I think there’s a clamoring for information on how to go about it, what steps to take, and people are just looking for help.”
The first step in creating an effective emergency notification plan should be to assess the education institution. Schools and universities should identify whom they are trying to reach and anticipate where the interested parties are most likely to be. Then they can determine the most effective methods of reaching those individuals.
In a crisis situation, higher-education institutions will need to reach the campus community — students, faculty and staff — immediately. This pool of individuals could be at any number of locations at any given time, including in a classroom, driving to campus, eating lunch at the student union, working out at the fitness center, sleeping in a residence hall room or even studying abroad.
Because communication will be needed in almost every part of campus, colleges and universities should deliver emergency messages through a variety of methods.
“I want to be able to contact my community in as many different ways and at as many different times as possible,” Wirth says.
Princeton University has an emergency notification system that can call every registered phone number, send out text messages to every registered cell phone and send e-mail messages to every registered e-mail account.
When Princeton last tested its system, it was able to send out messages across its entire campus community (about 50,000 contacts) in about 40 minutes.
Technology can be a great aid in spreading information, but what about the student who is sleeping in his or her residence hall room, or the one that is working out at the fitness center? Colleges and universities can make plans to spread information in less technical ways also, such as posting signs throughout campus, handing out flyers and appointing individuals to spread the word.
“I want high-tech and low-tech methods, word-of-mouth, whatever it takes to get the message out as quickly as possible,” Wirth says, “and not to rely on any one technology.”
In schools, one of the most important groups to reach immediately in an emergency is faculty and staff, because they are the ones who will be controlling the students and keeping them calm. After this is done, schools must notify parents to avoid miscommunication and inhibit the spread of rumors.
In case of an emergency, such as a lockdown, the San Juan (Calif.) Unified School District would use e-mail to keep faculty and staff informed. Each classroom in the district’s 74 schools is also equipped with a phone line.
The district then would contact parents through a communications system that it uses for emergency notification, as well as day-to-day communication with parents. The system enables the district to call every parent in a matter of seconds, says Trent Allen, director of communication for the San Juan district. If there is no answer, the system will leave a message. It reports back when lines are busy or disconnected, so the district can maintain current contact information.
The district is exploring the system’s ability to send text messages to parents, Allen says. Text messaging has evolved as one avenue of miscommunication during times of crisis in the past because students have heard rumors and text-messaged their parents from school with faulty information.
“The tool has obvious advantages, as it is nearly instantaneous and is more likely to be seen by a parent who might otherwise see a ‘voicemail waiting’ icon, but wait to check the message,” Allen says. “We believe it would be a great advantage to be able to communicate factual information to correct any possible rumors.”
Choosing the correct methods to deliver emergency messages gets an institution halfway to its goal of successful communication in a crisis, but the other half of the journey is in using the methods effectively and dodging any obstacles that might get in the way.
Technological methods can be the fastest way to spread information, but they can also have the greatest chance for error. If a school or university undergoes physical destruction, it may be hard to find prerecorded messages and emergency materials. When multiple text messages and phone calls are made, systems can jam up and fail.
Princeton University requires the vendor of its communications system to have its own disaster recovery plan. The vendor is off-campus, so if the campus suffers physical destruction, emergency communication could still be deployed from the vendor site. If the vendor site goes down, it has another site outside the area that would not be affected.
“You have to have a backup of your backup,” Wirth says. “But we purposely chose something off-site, so that if one of our systems goes down, we could still get the word out somehow.”
Schools and universities should also work with vendors to ensure that phone lines won’t become congested in an emergency. They can also contact their phone company to ensure their number cannot be blocked from recipients’ phones. The institution’s e-mail provider should also be contacted to ensure emergency messages are not filtered as spam mail.
Other obstacles can come in the form of human error, which can be just as harmful as technological failures.
“Remember that training and data are key to your success,” Allen says. “Any system you use will only be as effective as the people using it and the data you put into it.”
Education institutions should be careful that their everyday practices don’t “cry wolf” by overusing their communications systems for non-emergency situations.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana State University (LSU), Baton Rouge, took inventory of its lessons learned and put them to use in several areas. Its latest effort includes a new emergency text message communications system to distribute information to faculty, staff and students in a crisis. This system supplements the broadcast e-mails, broadcast voicemails and Web page posting that already was in place.
One of the recommendations by students concerning the new text message system was that it be used only in an emergency, says Ricky Adams, chief of police at LSU. This may include events such as chemical spills, an emergency closing of campus, an active shooter and storms or hurricanes.
Reserving the text message system for special use places a particular importance on its messages. Students, faculty and staff know that they would not be getting a message through the text system unless it was an urgent situation.
Some schools use the same system for both emergency and regular communication with parents. In this case, they should make sure parents know that the system is the primary mode of communication and that any emergency messages will be coming through that method of delivery.
Elgin (Ill.) School District U-46 uses its communication system to notify parents in an emergency and for traditional communication needs, such as attendance calling. The district has found that the system saves on postage, paper and personnel.
“There is an absolute responsibility to not desensitize these phone calls and use it when you need it; use it when it’s effective,” Heiderscheidt says. “That will be handled in how we train our personnel, how we train our administrators and how we secure the system.”
Using the system for everyday communication can be beneficial to a school district because it can be more efficient than sending notes home with students. It also helps familiarize administrators and parents with the system so they can use it more successfully in an emergency. Schools should be cautious, however, and find the proper balance between using the system effectively and overusing it.
“You don’t want to desensitize your parents and have them begin ignoring your calls because they assume it’s a message about today’s bake sale,” Allen says.
Sending the right message
The last thing schools and universities want to happen in an emergency is for a student or parent to receive a message, but not clearly understand its meaning. Education administrators should give careful thought to crafting the messages they will send out.
To help keep students calm in a crisis and to avoid them receiving emergency information from a computerized voice, Princeton has specified that its voice messages be prerecorded by a school administrator. It also has prewritten messages on-hand that have been approved and are ready to use. This can be a big time-saver in an urgent situation.
“We didn’t want to have a panic at the last minute and have someone sit there and try to compose something,” Wirth says.
Although it is impossible to predict every possible crisis, a basic format can be established so that only a quick revision is needed before the message can be sent out.
When composing messages, schools and universities should use plain language. They can supply the information in different languages as requested by parents. The messages should get the point across briefly and accurately.
Whatever tactics schools and universities choose, they should remember that there is not one recipe that will yield a successful crisis communications system for every school and university. Each institution should evaluate its needs and make individual choices that are best for its situation. The choices will be governed by an institution’s size, how much it can afford and other factors, Heiderscheidt says.
Some may get no further than the dollar sign in front of the cost estimate. They will have to consider all aspects of the system to determine if it is worth the money for their institution.
“It’s not cheap,” Heiderscheidt says, “but if it makes us more efficient, if it helps us in a crisis, if it helps us become better at managing those situations, it’s almost like paying for an insurance policy.”
Selecting an emergency communications system should be a thorough process, not something that is done in a panic, Wirth says. Schools and universities should take their time and do the job right instead of getting a quick fix and having to replace it later.
The U.S. Department of Education offers a Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grant each year to schools that want to improve their emergency response and crisis plans.
The estimated amount of funding available for 2007 was $24 million. Awards typically range from $100,000 to $500,000, and the estimated number of awards given is 73.
For application information concerning this grant, visit http://www.ed.gov/programs/dvpemergencyresponse/applicant.html.