14 Emergency Event Questions College Students Should Ask (and 14 Answers Colleges Should Have)

Experts suggest mass notification emergency communication (MNEC) questions students should ask their administration.

By D. Craig MacCormack

Prospective college students, unfortunately, should have these questions in their back pocket when considering schools.
March 19, 2014

We live today in a world that’s increasingly dangerous, where the threat of violence is seemingly ever present. While college campuses used to be looked at as safe haven for young adults to grow into full-blown productive members of society, on-campus shootings have become more common, even since the deadly rampage a few years ago at Virginia Tech, meaning colleges and universities must find ways to protect the students, staff and visitors—and alert them when there’s potential trouble.

While it’s not necessarily the first thing college kids think of when they move into their dorms—the distance to the library is, of course, the first priority for most—the robustness and effectiveness of a school’s mass notification and emergency communication (MNEC) system is definitely something they must think about in today’s world, and college and university officials must have the answers to their questions ready when they do ask questions.

What are the right questions for students to ask about MNEC? What are the right answers for university officials and security professionals to offer?

We asked Scott Lord, executive officer at All Systems Inc., a life-safety integrator in Kansas City; Bill Bozeman, president and CEO of PSA Security Network; Mike Cirulli, director of sales and project management at Berkshire Systems Group in Reading, Penn.; and Ben Nelson, owner of Nelson Fire Systems in Salt Lake City for their thoughts.

Does the college/university comply with the federal and state recommendations for MNEC?

Lord notes that, in 2012, the New York City Police Department issued recommendations for active shooter events. Under system recommendations, the NYPD says in its 2012 Active Shooter Recommendations and Analysis for Risk Mitigation that all colleges and universities must “put in place communications infrastructure that allows for facility-wide, real-time messaging.” The International Code Council states in the 2012 edition of the International Fire Code educational occupancies (which includes primary, secondary and higher education) shall have an “emergency voice/alarm communication system … designed and installed in accordance to NFPA 72.”

“The university should be aware of these recommendations and codes and should have either a communication system in place or have plans to do so,” says Lord. “The technology should NOT just be limited to emails and/or text messages. Live voice messages should be the standard for emergency communication on the campus.”

MNEC systems must be installed to meet code requirements on college campuses, says Nelson, whose company’s clients are about 90 percent K-12 or higher ed.

“If you put in a system that fails, they look to see if it’s code-compliant,” he says. If it’s not, the liability can fall on the integrator.

How does the MNEC system at your school/university compare to that of other schools/universities?

“The university should know what other universities are doing for mass notification and should be able to provide the student the benefits of the universities MNEC system over other universities,” says Lord.

What is the testing procedure for the MNEC system?

According to NFPA, the recommendation is to send a test signal to the MNEC system once daily to ensure that the system is working properly.  A device-by-device check of the system for proper operation should be conducted once a year to verify that each audio and visual device is functioning properly. Testing for intelligibility is recommended by not required.

What training do you do and who should be trained?

“You want every first responder to understand how to use the equipment and to know what to say to people during an emergency,” says Nelson. “Every university or school district needs to decide how they want to respond. We just give them the equipment to do it.”

What do you do with the data you collect via surveillance and video recording? Who handles the storage? Who has access to the data?
The U.S. is the seventh-most “recorded” country via surveillance and security cameras, says Bozeman. But once the event is over, what happens from there with the information that’s recorded and collected? In most cases, school administrations work directly with local law enforcement and either hand over the recordings to the local police or defer to them to do the surveillance and handle the recording themselves.

“Kids are so technically savvy today, so they expect all of this recording and surveillance,” says Bozeman. “They also expect to have access to it once things cool down and the incident is over. The question is more privacy-related, in terms of what kind of recording you’re doing and where you’re doing it.”

How does the college/university communicate with students that are not inside a building but on the campus?

Until recently, the green space areas (which are areas between buildings, common outdoor areas and athletic fields) were not included in any type of MNEC system, says Lord, but this has been updated and those areas are now included. The university should have in place, or plans to do so, to provide live voice communication to these areas.

“Every second counts,” says Cirulli. “The longer it takes to get that message out to everyone, there’s more potential for loss of life. Because a college campus is more spread out geographically than a K-12 school, it’s a harder situation to control. That makes communication even more important.”

Other issues that are more troublesome on college campuses include the fact that people who are 18 and older can get guns and there’s not always a formal check-in required for someone to walk around the campus, says Cirulli.

What social media plan is in place for emergency situations to communicate with students and parents?

According to Jo Robertson, chairperson of the NFPA 1600 Social Media Task Force, in an article in the NFPA Journal, “If social media is able to push out emergency information to critical audiences, we have to be able to use all of these tools.”

“Since students of all ages now carry wireless devices, it is important that the MNEC system have a way to communicate to students as well as parents,” says Lord. Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets are good ways to keep students and parents informed in the event of an emergency. The school should have a dedicated account on these sites that are specific for emergency messaging ONLY. The use of the school’s Facebook page to also post information during an emergency event is not acceptable. A separate page should be established and used for emergency communication.

Additionally, the school should have a way to send mass texts and emails that provide real-time notification during an emergency event.

About the author
D. Craig MacCormack

Craig MacCormack is a veteran journalist with more than 15 years experience covering local and national news and sports as well as architecture and engineering. He joined Commercial Integrator in January 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @CraigMacCormack.

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