Magazine article University Business

Ready, Set, Respond: The Virginia Tech Tragedy Prompted College and University Leaders to Plan in New Ways for Responding When the Unexpected Happens. A Year Later, How Much Progress Has Been Made in Bridging Crisis Communication Gaps?

Magazine article University Business

Ready, Set, Respond: The Virginia Tech Tragedy Prompted College and University Leaders to Plan in New Ways for Responding When the Unexpected Happens. A Year Later, How Much Progress Has Been Made in Bridging Crisis Communication Gaps?

Article excerpt

NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY OFFICIALS HAD prepared for an act of violence. Shortly after the Virginia Tech tragedy, they appointed a panel to revise security measures and establish a new emergency action plan. That plan was put to the test on Valentine's Day, when a former graduate student opened fire in a lecture hall, killing five students before turning a gun on himself.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It happened as higher ed administrators and campus safety experts being interviewed for this story were asked how much things had changed and whether preparation for violence can ever really be enough.

In the aftermath of last April's Virginia Tech massacre, in which a senior killed 32 people and then himself, higher ed leaders had no choice but to reexamine their crisis preparedness efforts.

Effective communication between administrators is the first--and a strong--line of defense in a security incident, and the tragedy at Virginia Tech reemphasized this message at campuses nationwide, notes S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of the safety advocacy group Security on Campus. "There needs to be a clear emergency response protocol in place." That protocol involves relationships with local emergency responders and mass notification so the community knows what's going on and what to do.

With the Northern Illinois shooting, officials responded immediately, sending notifications via e-mail, the web, and a public address system while instituting a campus lockdown. These actions couldn't save the five students killed that day, but, as Carter points out, it's crucial that administrators work to contain a campus emergency as quickly as possible. In the year since Virginia Tech, campus officials across the country are approaching crisis communication with renewed vigor and purpose.

TECHNOLOGY TO THE RESCUE

Technology has been a leading answer to improving crisis communications, with mass notification system adoptions exploding. Initial efforts after Virginia Tech focused on supporting SMS (short message service) text messaging for alert notification, and a combination of new products and new vendors toting these products emerged. But the potential shortfalls of relying solely on single-mode communication were quickly shown.

"Colleges and universities now are considering and evaluating the underlying ability of equipment vendors and service providers to actually deliver alerts," says Barry Zipp, executive director of managed business applications for Verizon Business, which provides notification services for higher ed institutions such as Fairleigh Dickinson University (N.J.).

On the recipients' side, some students have been slow to embrace text messaging notification, due to the youthful feeling of invincibility, a reluctance to give out personal information, and, in some cases, the fees that some cell phone providers charge to send and receive texts. Colleges differ on how they conduct sign-ups, either voluntary or required. For example, Boston University, which adopted an automatic notification system known as Send Word Now last summer, mandates that students provide an emergency alert phone number.

Though text messaging remains a major method for notification, many higher ed institutions have turned to multimodal alert notifications to reach students, faculty, and staff in real time rather than relying on a single method. "A combination of e-mails, IP signage, calls, text messaging, and other methods are needed to help ensure reaching as much of the recipient population as possible," says Zipp.

A recent survey by the Association for Community Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA) shows schools are focusing on e-mail, text and voice alerts, alarms, sirens, and emergency annunciator systems (non-automatic methods of declaring an emergency).

ACUTA President Walt Magnussen, also director of telecommunications at Texas A&M University, advises that when considering an emergency notification system, "the key is not to put your eggs all in one basket. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.