Why Schools Need a Mass Notification System
Recent shootings shine spotlight on the need for effective communication solutions on education campuses
The recent shooting incidents at Texas’s Sante Fe and Florida’s Parkland High Schools, during which students lost their lives in an active shooter situation, continue to shine a light on how educational institutions are communicating with and informing students, faculty, school resource officers and first responders during such events.
The idea of sending out a message to everyone involved—a mass notification related to the episode, incident or event, whether it’s a shooter or a weather-related emergency or some other happening—can be difficult under certain scenarios. Yet it’s critical to the safety and security of everyone involved and for those responding to the event to have accurate, timely information.
With nearly everyone having access to a cellphone these days, it would seem to be the most logical means for reaching a large group of people. But in some school settings, students’ access to cellphones is restricted, so communication to everyone via a mobile phone text message may not be possible. Similarly, there can be dead spots within a school building or on a campus where communication is spotty at best. And trying to reach thousands of people through their phone via a text message may cause a communication bottleneck. In addition, such messaging requires that users opt-in to the system; if they aren’t part of it, then they will miss out on receiving what could be a life-saving announcement.
Instead, schools are coming to rely on strategic notification in education-related settings, communicating with key individuals via multiple communications methods—text, email and pop-up messages on computer screens—then relying on public announcement systems for issuing alerts to the larger community.
Developing a Comprehensive Strategy
The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools, of which the Security Industry Association is a partner, offers a four-tier method for addressing school security, including emergency notification. At the first tier level, it recommends having a public address system, E-911 added to the phone system and training staff to call 911. The second level adds duress buttons for offices and classrooms and equipping staff with two-way radios. SMS alerts and pre-recorded messaging is part of Tier 3, while Tier 4 also brings in auto camera streaming, integration of weather and fire alerts and the ability to accept outside calls.
During a critical event, time is the most important factor. A school’s security system may be set up to call 911 through its monitoring call center when an alarm is sounded, but the time it takes to call the school back to verify if it’s a real or false event can mean the loss of not just seconds, but minutes during which the event can escalate. Verification through traditional channels can be problematic.
Today, there are systems available that bypass these slower notification methods and communicate more directly—a notification that goes directly to the 911 call center supervisor, for instance, or even a 911 message that appears as a pop-up on a computer screen linked to a video of the event. With these forms of communication, there is no doubt that the event is real and requires an immediate response.
Meanwhile, within the school itself, triggering a lockdown can be as easy as pushing a designated alarm button on a wall or using one that is hidden under a desk or appears as an icon on a desktop. The latter two are especially important if someone encounters a situation and doesn’t have the ability to physically call 911. If they see someone with a gun outside their door, they can push a panic button that sends the notification but doesn’t tip their hand that they’ve issued an alert.
Once an alarm goes out, communication is made to the school resource officer, who can then make the appropriate response; the school’s access control system is activated to institute a hard lockdown on exterior and classroom doors, if they are wired in such a way; messages are sent via computer screen pop-ups to faculty and administrators; and the public address system issues lockdown messaging so teachers and students can take action.
An effective strategic notification plan is all about having as many of these options as possible to communicate the problem and address the internal community with the most accurate information possible.
Tapping into an existing database can speed up the process and ensure accuracy and redundancy. For instance, if there is something going on at the school after hours and a key administrator needs to be notified, a system can be set up to include the person’s cell phone number, email and landline, so they can be reached at home or elsewhere.
Systems can also be programmed with messages that are triggered based on the event. The reaction to an active shooter will be quite different than what’s needed for a tornado or a fire. Just sounding an audible alarm may not be enough to tell students and faculty what to do. Instead, a recorded message, along with pop-up messages on computers and LED messaging on signage can provide multiple messaging options that reach people wherever they are on the campus while giving more complete instructions.
Although some schools are confined to a single building, many have sprawling campuses that encompass classrooms, athletic fields, gymnasiums and field houses. Outdoor speakers may be needed in these settings to notify everyone. Likewise, there are ways to tie in two-way radios that may be used by school resource officers or law enforcement on the scene.
Tying in video, while considered a more advanced step in an emergency notification plan, does provide real-time intelligence that can be used by first responders to locate an active shooter. Critical to this phase is making sure the cameras are compatible with the emergency response system and taking time to test it to ensure everything is in sync.
In fact, the ability to easily integrate other features into an emergency notification system should be one of the major considerations when putting together a plan.
Technology continues to evolve and needs change. While most schools may never need to deal with an active shooter situation, emergencies large and small are inevitable and a workable, scalable notification system is a critical piece for ensuring school safety and security.