The networks won't work without a detailed, well-rehearsed plan. An alert plan addresses what situations call for an alert. It details whose responsibility it is to send alerts and how to ensure alerts are received. It also spells out follow-up steps, such as when to notify off-campus groups like parents, social service agencies and the media. And finally, how and when to send alerts to multiple campuses.
During an extended crisis, such as the aftermath of a natural disaster or ongoing safety threat, campus officials would want to communicate with multiple parties, on and off campus. Campus alert plans contain information about communicating with groups such as students, employees, information technology managers, crisis management teams, public safety personnel, health care agencies and others.
Alert system plans often include steps for modifying a campus' home page or creating a special Web site on which to post information and updates. It also includes steps for keeping primary communication channels clear of non-essential traffic and a means of notifying the community when the crisis has passed.
Plans also address the means for officials to receive information from the community following an alert. It might identify who is responsible for gathering information from incoming phone calls, e-mail and text messages and who will organize and analyze the information and apply it to the crisis management strategy.
Proficient campus safety officials frequently test the alert system to ensure it's working properly. They also hold drills with staff members, to try to identify problems in the plan.
Handling threats and emergencies
Let's say campus officials with access to a fully integrated alert system network decide they need to alert the entire campus to an imminent threat. They tap into several communications trees that branch out through the campus. Protocols call for campus law enforcement or other officials to activate the alert and operate the alert system.
Officials often initiate campus alerts through a computer system, usually one with a secure Web-browsing connection. Some alert systems can be initiated by phone using special access codes.
Alerts generally contain short, specific information:
- The nature of the emergency
- What immediate steps to take
- Who is sending the alert
- Where to get further information
The integrated network then reaches out to the many communication devices on campus, such as cell phones, pagers, personal data devices like BlackBerries, e-mail and instant messaging programs. Depending on the network, phone systems, fax machines, satellite phones and radios might also receive the alert. Devices for the hearing and sight impaired, such as TDD and TTY systems, also are included.
At the same time, the older methods also swing into action. Automated phone calls are placed giving pre-recorded messages to whomever picks up the other end. Around campus, flashing lights on public phones alert those standing near to pick it up for an important, pre-recorded message.
Loudspeakers located throughout campus broadcast the pre-recorded alerts while large electronic signs that normally preview athletic or entertainment events scroll the alert message. Campus and area media receive the alert along with a request from the university to broadcast its content or post it on their Web sites.
Receiving campus alerts
Employees and students may be asked to follow instructions or send feedback and information from their locations, such as what they see, how many people are with them and their locations. They also should monitor further reports as more information and instructions become available.
For advantages and disadvantages of alert systems, keep reading.