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  • Mass Notification Systems for Schools and Universities: Best Practices & Key Considerations

  • School hallway

    Photo by kyo azuma on Unsplash

    How do schools that excel at safety and compliance put together their mass notification systems? What criteria and steps should you consider? In this post, we’ll cover insights from Jeff Morgan, Director of Security and Emergency Management at the University of Central Florida.

    A few days ago, Jeff joined a couple of experts in presenting the Emergency Communications webinar, hosted by Campus Safety. The following advice is excerpted from that presentation.

    Backstory

     

    One of Jeff’s first responsibilities, when he joined the UCF Office of Emergency Management, was to put together a mass notification system (MNS). One challenge, he says, was that they were behind other Florida universities, and didn’t have a redundant MNS.

    “Integration was very important to us: a one-button solution,” he shared. “When I spoke with peers across the country, [I learned most] had to log into multiple systems to send out messages through different means, which resulted in delays. We wanted to make sure we could do that utilizing one platform.”

    The Role of Mass Notification in Education

     

    It’s true mass notification can be used to improve operations and revenue. (We wrote about that here.) But for schools, mass notification’s primary role is life safety, plus compliance with the Clery Act, says Jeff.

    To achieve that, you’ll need the ability to deploy emergency alerts at a moment’s notice using multiple, redundant systems so if you have a single point of failure, other systems can make up for it and there’s no delay or interruption in alerting your community.

    System Considerations

     

    Jeff’s team considered the following factors when building their MNS:

    • When did the solution hit the market?
    • Is it upgradeable/scalable?
    • What’s the planned obsolescence timeframe?
    • How long has the company been in business?
    • How will it tie into your existing ENS for text, email, voice dial, etc.?

    Construction Standards

     

    As your facilities expand, you’ll need to create MNS standards for new construction. In doing so, Jeff advises:

    Be specific

    • Decide when a system is to be installed.
    • What equipment you want, and what makes it special.
    • Be prepared to justify your selection.

    “If you have to put these projects out to bid and you’re not specific,” he explains, “you’ll have folks [submit] different solutions, and you don’t want to piecemeal lots of different systems. The more specific you are, the easier it is to choose a solution and make sure you have a very clean system that works well with each other.”

    Be familiar

    • Know your standards: When is a MNS required?
    • Be prepared for deviation requests. This often happens because people are trying to cut costs, but those cuts tend to affect public safety.
    • Learn to say “no.”
    • Make sure Environment, Health & Safety (EH&S), Fire folks are involved.

    Understand installation funding options

    • Grants (UCF received funding from the Dept. of Homeland Security. Jeff advises you look into that.)
    • Construction funds
    • Budget line funds

    Best Practices

     

    Systems and additions

    • Don’t piecemeal the system core.
    • Do research to ensure compatibility.
    • Have the installer present during the purchase (they tell you things salespeople don’t).
    • Ask lots of questions.
    • Invite other stakeholders: radio shop, IT, maintenance, construction, etc.
    • Invite end users: security office, police dispatch, public relations, etc.

    Integrate multiple systems

    • Disparate systems cost time, and time costs lives.
    • Integration increases your effectiveness.
    • Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) in terms of having your solution communicate with other notification systems.

    Simple operation is best

    • Select a product with an intuitive user interface.
    • The fewer steps to notification, the better.
    • Simplicity avoids operator error and needless effort.
    • Create a checklist or guide for users.

    Have a service agreement in place

    • Make sure vendor has common parts on hand.
    • Specify a reasonable response window.
    • Have a general understanding of key components.
    • Know how much you’re being charged.
    • Make a multi-year renewable.
    • People servicing your system should have adequate experience.
    • Be very familiar with agreement terms.
    • Request a single point of contact.

    Final words of wisdom

     

    Integration is paramount

    “When we have vendors come in, the first thing we check is whether it can integrate with our current MNS,” Jeff said. “If not, we’re no longer interested.”

    Ask lots of questions

    “We want to make sure we’re very clear on what we’re trying to do,” Jeff insists. For example, “can we still deploy mass notification if we lose power?”

    Plan for worst-case scenarios

    “When you do your threat vulnerability assessment, challenge your MNS at the same time and make sure it works in worst-case scenarios.”