How to Select The Best Mass Notification System for Your Campus
Although some college campuses have long benefited from mass notification systems, the current evolving threat environment facing our education systems indicate just how crucial it is for all schools to have the technologies and communications infrastructure to inform and protect students, families, faculty and staff. Today’s university leadership must proactively prepare for a myriad of threats, including active shooters, severe weather, violent protests, disease outbreaks, cyber breaches and power disruptions.
In all of these cases, the school must be armed with technology to quickly and easily communicate necessary information to prevent loss of life and ensure the safety and security of individuals. This article explores seven mass notification system capabilities to consider in evaluating the right solution for your university.
IS THE SYSTEM A BEST FIT FOR SIZE OF YOUR CAMPUS?
Campus size varies wildly across the country, with smaller regional schools taking up only a few acres to expansive national university systems, including the U.S. Military and Air Force academies that can sprawl to more than 15,000 acres. Your campus size will play a role in the type of emergency system you select. For larger institutions, you should be able to segment your alerts by location: an alert that is vital to one area of campus is less relevant to those miles away.
Ensure that you can include specific location information in your communication so that people less familiar with your entire geography can effectively take action. In terms of hosting, you will want to explore hybrid or SaaS solutions. Although your large campus likely has an established IT team, having at least some of your solution hosted in the cloud will enable you to scale your response system much more rapidly as you adjust for size.
Universities with tens of thousands of students and faculty should factor in a system that allows for targeted notification capabilities to prevent message fatigue. If all or large segments of students, teachers and staff are barraged with notifications on non-emergency daily happenings, there is a greater chance they might tune out notifications of a more serious nature. The ability to hyper-target users by geographic location and other filters will help them avoid message fatigue.
Smaller campuses, on the other hand, are less likely to create message fatigue, so consider expanding your range of messages worthwhile to your audience—class cancellations, building closures or event updates. These schools will definitely want to explore SaaS options, which can help reduce Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) by eliminating the need for expensive hardware, staffing, maintenance, upgrades and dedicated infrastructure typically associated with premise-based options.
DOES THE SYSTEM HAVE APPROPRIATE DATA SECURITY AND PRIVACY?
According to Adam Benson, the deputy executive director at the Digital Citizens Alliance, “Higher education institutions have deployed resources and talent to make university communities safer, but highly skilled and opportunistic cyber criminals make it a challenge to protect large groups of highly desirable digital targets.”
Indeed, the National Law Review reports that the education sector was the most targeted by ransomware, with 13 percent of all higher ed institutions experiencing an attack on their network in 2016.
As with any new technology purchase and implementation, you must ensure that your mass notification system can withstand that barrage of malicious activity and has in place appropriate data security and privacy. Security related functions and practices, including data encryption both at-rest and in-transit, top-tier data center provisions, recipient PIN code entry, and other security features are must haves in a critical communications solution.
You should also research to ensure your vendor offers near-100 percent uptime with 24/7/365 support across all platforms—desktop, tablet and especially mobile—and that the solution integrates with your current antivirus and anti-malware software.
DOES YOUR MASS NOTIFICATION PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS?
Speaking of integration, your mass notification system should also seamlessly integrate with tools, databases and applications already in place such as student and teacher directories, portals with class information and student profiles, and other databases that hold valuable information that can be used to ensure real-time and targeted notifications.
Anytime you add a new technology solution to your existing stack, you must be careful to ensure it will work effectively with these systems— whether they are new, legacy or custom-built—so that information does end up siloed in a way that undermines the value EMNS can deliver. Even the best implementation requires some time and resources, so the last thing you want your IT team doing is wasting valuable cycles learning new languages and reprogramming.
HAVE YOU THOUGHT THROUGH YOUR NOTIFICATION MESSAGES?
Best-of-breed mass notification vendors will have trained teams with years of experience in installing and optimizing these systems. As important as the technology is, understanding your audience and what types of messages you want to communicate is equally as important.
It is best practice to have separate sets of protocols for emergencies and general day-to-day notifications: end users need to very quickly and clearly distinguish between an event that could impact their safety and one that simply provides updates on, say, changes to class schedules. The former should be “intrusive in a good way,” in that they reach the user in a manner that is impactful enough to inspire action. These separate protocols should live within one holistic notification system, though, so that there is no confusion between disparate channels.
During this message development and testing phase is when you’ll work with your solutions provider to determine how to most effectively engage with your audience and what other nuances should be considered: language variety or barriers; regional dialects or sayings; or preferred communication channels and technology will all impact how you craft your notification strategy.
WHAT ARE THE GEO-TARGETING CAPABILITIES?
Educational institutions with highly distributed campuses are going to find situations when alerts need to be directed to a specific area ranging from a building, to the entire campus, or even multiple campuses worldwide, to ensure only those recipients are notified.
Geo-targeting is often used by emergency response or law enforcement organizations seeking to alert citizens in defined geographic areas about various threats and incidents, but it is a capability that can be leveraged by campuses as well—particularly those with students and faculty spread across a large geographic area or multiple locations. Through combining speed and relevancy, organizations can help increase employee adoption rates and use of notification systems and ultimately ensure that alerts effectively reach, inform and positively impact your school.
ABILITY TO ASSIGN USERS CERTAIN LEVELS OF SYSTEM ACCESSIBILITY
Although we read often about software and hardware breakdowns that lead to cyber breaches or other negative outcomes, in reality human beings are most often the weak point in the system. That’s not to say that your IT team isn’t doing their job well, but today’s malicious users are incredibly sophisticated when it comes to influencing human behavior, and most of the time their targets aren’t even the technical employees, but other individuals who might have access and can be exploited.
To maintain the integrity of your mass notification solution – as well as the larger integrity of your entire IT system – you should be able to assign users different levels of system accessibility, so only those with the most technical expertise have full access to the mission-critical parts of the system. For other users who may simply need to login to send a daily message, that level of access should more restrictive. This differentiation can help prevent cyber breaches, incorrect notifications and false alarms.
DOES IT MEET REGULATORY/COMPLIANCE REQUIREMENTS LIKE THE CLERY ACT?
The Clery Act is a consumer protection law that aims to provide transparency around campus crime policy and statistics. When a crime covered by the Clery Act occurs, campus officials are required to evaluate if there is a serious or ongoing threat to the campus community to determine if a timely warning needs to be issued to all staff and students.
In the event of an immediate, significant danger to the health or safety campus community (e.g., weather, disease outbreak), campus officials may issue an emergency notification. This notification can include the entire campus, or be limited to a specific area deemed to be at risk.
For campus officials, understanding what qualifies under the Clery Act is crucial, and your mass notification provider must be able to offer sound guidance to help ensure your team is in lock-step with Act requirements.
It’s time to ensure your campus is ready for anything Researching and demoing new technology solutions can be time consuming, selling the idea to school officials who control the budget can be difficult, and securing buy-in from IT staff for implementation can take some cajoling. At the end of the day, though, the well-being of students, faculty and parents is simply far too important to delay starting the process of selecting a mass notification system. The best solutions are already saving lives—can you afford to wait?