Emergency Communication Plan to Incorporate Text Messaging
The shootings at Virginia Tech in April forced higher education institutions across the country to revisit their emergency communication protocols. Buffalo State created an Emergency Communication Task Force after the incident to examine the campus’s existing communication vehicles and make recommendations for improvements. As a result, students, faculty, and staff will soon be better connected through new high-tech communication methods.
The task force, chaired by Claire Jones, associate vice president for college relations, first defined what constitutes an emergency situation and then outlined appropriate responses. The task force determined that emergency communication would be required in any incident where the physical or mental health and safety of any campus constituent is, or could be, at risk. In addition, messages should be timely, be sent using multiple means, contain instructions, and contain all known facts.
Buffalo State already has many emergency communication systems in place, including e-mail, the Web site, a campus television network, residence hall word-of-mouth, building coordinators, communication in classrooms, a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), a Critical Incident Support (CIS) team, mass voice mail to faculty and staff, two-way radios, and bullhorns. But communication via cell phone—something owned by virtually everyone on campus—was lacking.
“There are plenty of ways to communicate with faculty and staff,” said Jones. “We really wanted to focus on the students.”
NY-Alert, a new emergency notification system created and administered by the New York State Emergency Management Office (SEMO), seemed the perfect tool. Already in use by the Department of Transportation and the New York State Police for Amber Alerts, this voluntary system that delivers text messages, automated phone messages, and e-mails to participants will be introduced to the Buffalo State community in three phases.
In the first phase, students will have the option to sign up. Every semester, during registration in Banner, they will see a forced survey asking them to submit up to two cell phone numbers, two landline phone numbers, and two e-mail addresses. They can also submit information anytime through the Buffalo State Web site beginning in October. An awareness campaign to inform students will launch soon.
In the second phase, faculty and staff will have the option to sign up via the SUNY employee portal. The task force hopes to initiate this by the end of the semester.
In the third phase, non-state employees (such as those working for Sodexho or Barnes and Noble), visitors, and the general public will have the option to sign up via the SEMO Web site.
“The important thing for everyone to know is that there is no cost to sign up,” said Jones. “There is no downside, and no reason not to sign up. Once NY-Alert is in place, it’s our hope that the system will send thousands of messages within minutes.”
Examples of situations that could prompt a NY-Alert message include those involving bomb threats, fires, hazardous materials, civil disturbances, pandemics, suspicious packages, weapons, perpetrators at large, active shooters, hostages, missing people, utility failures (such as gas, electrical, or water), major road closings, flooding, and extreme weather conditions.
The task force also determined that the campus still needs a visible and audible alarm. “What if cell phones are turned off during classes?” questioned Jones. Buffalo State is awaiting possible SUNY systemwide funding for a mass notification system with sirens and message displays or strobe lighting. The task force also is investigating use of the upgraded fire alarm system’s voice enunciator feature.
“We’ll use the new communication vehicles only when safety and security are at risk,” Jones said. “The task force tried to anticipate all kinds of emergencies that could happen on campus. We’ve planned and trained as much as possible in order to be prepared.”