Communicating in an Emergency

Bob Lang of Kennesaw State University is addressing mass notification by deploying multiple layers of technology

Why Layers are Necessary
Many institutions responded to the need for mass communications by implementing just one of the possible technologies. Unfortunately, while that approach can meet budget objectives, it often does not satisfy the need to provide comprehensive communications during a crisis.

Each of the technologies has a blind spot. Sirens can not be heard indoors. Cell phones have dead spots in large buildings unless repeaters have been installed. Cell phones also may often be turned off during class. Voice evacuation systems do not cover the areas between buildings. Messages to computer desktops do not help if you are not near one. Digital signage can not be installed cost-effectively and still provide campus-wide blanket coverage.
All of the vendors in the space seem to agree the answer is to use as many paths of communication as you can. That said, multiple systems bring with them administrative complexity unless they are designed to work together. Standalone systems require multiple people to be trained and then cross trained.

The answer is integration. “We are putting all of our systems on our network,” Lang says. “We want to be able to trigger the system from any location and have the right messages be automatically sent for any event.”

Justifying It All
Undeniably, a layered system is more expensive than a single-technology approach. While a good system is in the same range of expenditure as a typical CCTV system, that doesn’t mean it is in the budget. Two key factors may help. A system that is used for more than just crisis management and by more than just the security department will be viewed as adding real value every day. Systems such as digital signage and telephone messaging can be used for a wide variety of student and faculty communications. The only issue with this kind of dual use is making sure that there is a clear difference between the presentation of emergency and non-emergency communications. Without that, there is a high likelihood that crisis communications will be ignored. “For cell phone communications, it is critical that your system uses Caller-ID so emergency messages can be clearly labeled,” Rabe says.

Beyond this everyday value, the other key factor that can help justification is an understanding of the damage one incident can do to the brand image of the institution. “A lot of people are looking for a single solution for budget reasons, understandably,” Lang says. “But if the worst does happen, you’ll be second guessed forever. One incident can bury your university.”

Rich Anderson is the president of Phare Consulting, a firm providing technology and growth strategies for the security industry. A 25-year veteran of high tech electronics, Mr. Anderson previously served as the VP of Marketing for GE Security and the VP of Engineering for CASI-RUSCO. He can be reached at