Risk Reporter for Educational Facilities
Spring 2013 Vol. 1, Issue 1
Campus crisis communication plans
During the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 — the worst school shooting in U.S. history, with a death toll of 33 including the gunman — most students and faculty didn’t learn that a shooting had occurred until two hours after the event. In the aftermath of that tragedy, colleges and universities made a concerted effort to install or upgrade their mass notification systems and improve their crisis communication plans.
Although there’s no universal standard for what constitutes a “mass notification system,” it’s typically defined as some level of a voice or Web-based alerting technology. A survey by Siemans, a manufacturer of these systems, estimates that 84 percent of campuses have a mass notification system of some kind.
This type of rapid communication tool can be critical to protecting staff, students and visitors in the event of a crisis on campus, but it’s not the only thing to consider.
Create a communication plan
This should be overseen by the university’s communications department with input from a wide range of specialties, including student affairs, government relations, administration, emergency management and whichever offices on campus oversee services to disabled students and staff.
Study the requirements of the Jeanne Clery Act
This federal law requires colleges and universities in the U.S. to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses. Colleges and universities must issue timely warnings about Clery Act crimes that pose a serious or ongoing threat to students and employees and inform the campus community about a “significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on the campus.”
Identify your audiences
These will include students, faculty and staff, parents, the community, the media and government officials.
Use multiple channels
Typical communication channels include text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, emails, audio alerts and LED displays on signboards around campus.
“We have 60,000 people on our campus every day,” said Nick Crossley, CEM, ABCP, CPM, manager for emergency management and mission continuity at the University of California, Davis. “We use every channel available and actively encourage people to spread the word. If you notice a text message warning of a problem on campus, don’t assume that everyone’s seen it — walk through your building and let people know.”
At UC Davis, the communication system pulls emails and telephone numbers from the campus directory to reach students, staff and faculty. “We encourage people to make sure they’re registered to receive communication updates,” Crossley said. “It requires the best efforts of both the university and the individual to make sure that information is disseminated.”
Identify a spokesperson
In advance of a crisis, choose spokespeople to address the media, students, parents, etc. Choose someone with knowledge and credibility in that area — for instance, the police chief is probably your best spokesperson for a public safety issue in conjunction with a representative from your school — and ensure that they are comfortable in this role and they receive media training.
Create prepared statements for all incident types
To speed notification, create a complete library of texts, emails and message board announcements that can be quickly customized in the event of an incident.
Conduct regular testing of your notification systems
Crossley recommends testing at least annually.