Are you making the most of mass notification?

Customization, using social media and pushing out safety routes just some new capabilities of mass notification systems (MNS).

Anyone who says the use of mass notification is a new trend for education institutions and communities doesn’t fully understand it. Mass notification is as old as communication itself. Paul Revere blasted a verbal warning that “the British are coming.” The Cold War broadcasts interrupted TV shows with the message “this is a test of the emergency broadcast system.” Local volunteer fire departments conduct regular fire drills at the elementary schools. Some schools already send campus-wide text messages with class cancellations.

What has changed about mass notification is the methodology, the granularity and specificity of the message, and the customization to individual recipients or groups. Mass notification itself is a general term. With respect to critical events, the capability better fits into the category of “mass communications,” in which an organization sends a message through a communication channel to a large anonymous group of people and/or organizations.

So when did the transformation to modern mass notification systems (MNS) occur? Despite the advances through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, nearly every critical event during these time periods was characterized by dangerously ineffectual communication.

The problem garnered little national attention until the 1999 Columbine High School shooting cited definable mass communications issues in the immediate response and post-crisis victim response. Since then, the U.S. has experienced an uptick in school and campus shootings. These tragedies continue to drive technological advancements in mass notification.

What does it look like for schools?

Mass notification does not suffer for a lack of enabling technology, but few think about a comprehensive system rather than a singular solution. The greatest value of a well architected MNS, however, is that it can deliver varied and customized communications to large groups of people sharing a commonality.

MNS have traditionally been divided into three segments: in-building, wide area, and distributed messaging. All three of these segments contain similar components. That’s because the physical location does not demand a specific combination of technologies and methodologies. Instead, technologies are selected based on the specific event, message content, intended result, and most importantly, the recipient.

While many people associate MNS with fire alarms and text message alerts, today’s systems incorporate many other modes of communication from an email notification to strobe lights or automated phone calls, similar to a reverse 911 call. For larger open campuses, an MNS could include a loud speaker, which can sound a siren notification or even an automated message.

Social media is also a growing mass notification communication channel. Many schools already use social media — think Facebook and Twitter — to provide regular updates like weather-related class cancellations, and these outlets can also be used for timely emergency updates as they allow two-way communication between students, staff, and law enforcement.

Targeted delivery

Through distributed messaging systems, MNS can also broadcast alert notifications and evacuation route directions to targeted areas in the event of an emergency. For example, in an active shooter situation, leaving a building may actually put more people in harm’s way in some cases. Depending on the situation, it may be safer for occupants to move to a different floor or area in the building.

The same could be said about a weather-related issue, where a display board or email notifications would share an alert to take shelter in a basement due to a tornado.

How to start

When implementing an MNS, it’s critical to assess campus needs as a first step. A risk analysis will help administrators identify modes of communications already in place that can be used more effectively for mass notification. Some buildings, for example, may have sound systems and video screens that can broadcast messages in multiple languages for daily information sharing and emergency communication.

Ultimately, the goal of an MNS is to develop a customized, holistic program that enables communication across multiple platforms. It should be adaptable to reach individuals or a wide-spread community with a custom message — whether an emergency notification or a pep rally announcement.

Thomas Connell is the senior manager for mass notification systems at Tyco Fire Protection Products. This article was first published on eCampus News.

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