5 ways colleges can bolster emergency notifications

Ensuring that alerts reach faculty, staff and especially students is essential to keeping campuses safe

How well-equipped are colleges or universities to deliver mass notifications during times of emergency?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions have faced numerous “crisis moments,” and how they’ve responded has made a difference in keeping campuses safer.

Those that have delivered clear, concise and strategic mobile alerts have helped properly guide staff, faculty and students before, during and after those situations. That has been especially important at colleges with multiple campuses or where the majority of learners operate remotely. Those with strong, nimble lines of communication have also been able to receive key data in return from those on the ground.

On the flip side, those institutions that have failed to be direct and tactical, especially during critical moments, have struggled to reach those on the other end.

“If you’re constantly sending new updates to your community and changing direction: we’re open today, now we’re doing remote, we’re going to be back open in a week … that can be confusing,” says Todd Miller, COO of Rave Mobile Safety, a solutions provider that serves scores of higher education institutions with a robust line of notification and safety applications. “I think schools need to be very deliberate about their plans. And I think they need to be as consistent as possible with how they are going to communicate certain things.”

There are many ways colleges and universities can get emergency notifications to their communities. Miller says a multi-modal approach is preferred over one or two lines of communication – in other words – don’t launch an initiative where the sole form of outreach is through the university’s website or email. Communicate across a number of platforms: social media, phone messages, apps, and of course, text messages.

“Text messaging remains one of the best ways to reach students, and they’ve got that device in their hands all the time,” he says. “It doesn’t require an app, but it does enable two-way communication. When you send out messages, one of the nice features is that we can collect responses. You could ask someone: Are you healthy or not? Are you in quarantine or not?”

Miller’s company provides safety, communications and collaboration solutions for colleges and universities “to help protect their communities” by offering a number of products and suites, such as Rave Alert, Rave911 and Smart911. Some of its more notable higher ed clients include Johns Hopkins, Duke, Ohio State and New York University.

As someone who has worked at the Rave Mobile for 13 years, Miller has seen the evolution of technology solutions first-hand, and most importantly, the essential transformations happening as a result of the pandemic. During an exclusive interview with University Business, he provided these five strategies that leaders should be considering as they are trying to deploy notifications across their campuses:

    1. Provide immediate notification of outbreaks with clear direction. The longer that we wait to inform the public, the more spread there is. Communities in higher education that have been successful in reducing the outbreak have been very proactive in their notifications. They tell people as soon as there’s an outbreak, where the outbreak was, who should be in quarantine and how long should they be in quarantine. That effective communication provides people with clear direction. Getting messages out via text message is going to be one of the primary modes that students, faculty and staff are going to be able to quickly receive. … Push information to your website to have a running log. This is public information that needs to be made available.
    2. Enabling two-way communication. This is not just about pushing information out to our communities; we need to collect information from them. We’ve seen a large number of incidents tied to large, unauthorized gatherings. We need to provide a mechanism that students and staff feel comfortable anonymously reporting items that they see may not be safe. This also gives us an idea of where spread is happening. … Providing an anonymous tip forum, we enable it through a couple means. We have a process where you can simply send them a text message to report something or it could be done through an app. But the key is, make it really easy, publicize how to send in tips and engage with those with those individuals. It’s about collecting that information from the community and being able to have a conversation back with them about where these events are happening and what needs to take place.
    3. Enabling geo-targeted messaging or alerts. Some higher education institutions that we work with are large state schools that have many campuses spread out across the state. The reality is, an outbreak at a campus on one side of the state may have no impact on another dorm at another campus all the way on the other side of the state. One of the ways you can reduce message fatigue is by targeting those alerts to specific campuses, or even specific areas of campus, so you can deliver direct messages to those individuals. There’s a couple different ways that you can do that. One is through pure text messaging, where you can slice and dice the user base any way that you want. You can apply lots of different attributes to a user when you’re going to send out a message so we know what campus they’re a part of or what residence hall. Or you can leverage  the next step in technology, which would be doing geo-target alerts using apps on phones. Once you’ve got an app on a phone, you can start doing some really interesting things. You’ve got this large campus setting, maybe you draw a circle on a map, where it was a hot spot. As individuals come into that area, they can receive a message through that app that tells them there’s been an outbreak and here’s the actions that we want them to take.
    4. Leveraging safety applications to communicate more. It’s important that we tell our communities about these outbreaks as soon as they happen, but we need to provide them with other resources, too. Other things that can provide the real-time information on the status of a campus, or on-demand information, meaning being able to open up my school safety application and go to some resources that give me guidance on precautions to take, where I can go to get tested, emergency contact details. Providing all that information in an app is a really great way to make these resources available. We don’t want to have message fatigue. We can’t constantly send updates on general services that are being provided. But we can provide resources in the palm of your hand that can be accessed at any time that provide students, faculty and staff with great resources that they can leverage on a daily basis.
    5. Have a daily automated health check. That can be enabled through either text messaging or through our app. Provide a method on a daily basis to send a reminder out to the community that allows them to answer some very basic, health-related questions. It may be as simple as, ‘Are you exhibiting flu-like symptoms today, yes or no?’ And being able to respond yes or no. And then getting some real-time feedback. If you respond, yes, we’re going to give you a response message that says ‘thank you, please follow these directions. Go get tested, remain in quarantine until testing results come back’. This allows students, faculty and staff to provide that feedback. And by the way, you’re also pushing all those reports back up to the administration, giving the administrators a daily dashboard that shows them the health conditions across their campuses and allows them to make real-time decisions on the course that they’re going to take. Do they need to lock down portions of the campus? Can they remain open? Without having those daily checkpoints, a lot of schools are flying blind and are waiting for bad things to happen. An automated health check is probably the one of most proactive things that schools can do to assess their community and respond.

For colleges that may be struggling to get the messages through, have fallen behind on plans or are simply looking to start, they should act now, Miller says.

“The good news is not too late. You can start now, establish those those protocols, adjust your plan,” he says. “You’ve got to understand what COVID infection rates are not only on your campus, but what the surrounding community is experiencing. You can deploy many of these techniques in a very short period of time. Organizations that that work with us integrate with the student information system very easily. Overnight, we can have all the students, faculty and staff loaded into the system able to receive messages. But time is ticking. I would encourage schools to move and act.”

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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