Forget getting the message out, experts say redundancy is key.
Community colleges are known for their flexibility, often serving students coming for two-year degrees and hoping to transfer to four-year schools or students who are already in the workforce and looking to further their education. For this reason, community colleges are increasingly offering a wider range of classes online.
But for these same reasons, community colleges are less likely to implement layered emergency notification systems, according to a white paper published last month by Siemens.
The white paper analyzed the annual security reports for 77 public, private, and community colleges from each of the four regions of the United States. The report identified four types of mass notification systems in use by institutions. “At Your Side” methods included text message and email notification, the university Web site, blogs, internal portals, and call-in hotlines. “Inside” methods included PA systems, digital signage, fire alarms, and tone alerts. “Outside” methods were outdoor PA systems, warning sirens, and emergency phones. Siemens included an additional category it called, “Extended,” that included social media notification using Facebook and Twitter and other ways not listed in other categories.
Siemens found that all of the colleges examined used at least one of these ways to communicate with the campus during an emergency. Overall, however, the study found community colleges were less likely to use layered emergency notification systems. Seventy-five percent used just one or two of the described methods—most relying on Web-based communications.
Pitt Community College (PCC), a community college that serves nearly 8,500 students in Eastern North Carolina plus continuing education students, is one such example. Rick Owens, assistant vice president of Information Technology and Services at PCC, said the school primarily uses text messaging, email, and online based systems like social media and RSS Feeds for its mass notifications.
“We needed some way to reach a large number of students in a short time period, thus the SMS requirement,” he told Security Management. “We do use some digital signage, but our current viewpoint is that SMS is the fastest and most reliable way to reach our students.”
Siemens argues that assumption is a mistake. “Given that many community college students may be working on a two-year associate degree, taking a year of general education courses before transferring to a four-year school or attending continuing education classes for only a semester to enhance their skills, the reliance on web-based communications is cause for concern,” the report says. Sixty-one percent of community colleges reported offering at least one course online , according to a Pearson Foundation survey. Siemens worries that the likelihood visitors and students will get the emergency messages through online sources is less than through public address systems and digital signage.
But there seems to be a disconnect. If students are taking more online courses, it seems it would be better to reach the students where they are. Not exactly, explained Siemens spokesman, Steven Kuehn.
“While many [students and staff] do have a web-based relationship with the college, solely relying on that is not going to help you manage the risk to all those on campus at a given time,” Kuehn said. “You’re trying to reach all the people in proximity of the critical event. You can’t know with any real certainty who is on campus at any given moment. You need layered communication to reach all the people who are in physical proximity to the danger.”
The report says colleges in the South showed the highest level of sophistication with the largest number of schools using more than eight different ways to notify students and faculty during an event.
For example, East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, North Carolina, and just across town from PCC, uses every mode of communication listed in the survey, with the most recent addition, on-campus loudspeakers, added in the last two years. It also uses several extended notification services. ECU’s enrollment hovers around 30,000 students.
“Ten years ago we didn’t have 75-90 percent of these tools available to us,” John Durham, executive director of university communications told Security Management. “As you add technology capabilities, the avenues for communicating broaden.”
The university not only provides alert signage in main campus buildings and residence halls, but pop-up alerts on university computers and text message notifications that can be subscribed to by anyone on or off-campus. It also provides an app online that can be downloaded to ad pop-up alerts to a personal computer.
“Obviously we don’t use our whole arsenal everyday though,” Durham said. The ECU Police Department and the school’s emergency management do a good job evaluating the risk that any particular incident poses and the most appropriate method of communication, he said.
For getting the message out , Siemens says think "redundancy."
"If online based notifications are your main gun, you're going miss people who are there who have a causal relationship or no relationship with the community college," said Kuehn. "To make sure that you reach people like that and others, redundancy is key. Part of it is to inform people, and part of it is to keep people out of the danger zone."
photo courtesy of Siemens