How Mass Notification Systems Help Campuses Develop Active Shooter Response Plans

Critical event management capabilities are providing campuses with more methods for handling emergency events, and it begins with planning.

Planning for an active shooter situation is a daunting task for any campus. The seriousness of the event means meticulous preparations are required to ensure that awareness is high, risk is minimal, and responses are quick. None of those goals are achieved by accident, and campus leaders need to have the tools in place that aid them in keeping everyone safe.

Mass notification systems can play a critical role in campus safety, especially when it comes to active shooter situations. These tools are continuing to evolve to offer more than just simple alerting features. Critical event management capabilities are providing campuses with more methods for handling emergency events, and it all begins with planning.

Developing a response plan for any kind of incident comes with unique challenges. Factors like the size of the campus, the number of buildings within the campus, and the number of people on campus can all impact what action items make the most sense to include in a plan. Using a mass notification system, campuses can plan out every step of their response, and customize it to meet their needs.

From the initial alert to follow-up messages telling people to shelter in place, as well as all-clear messages that let everyone know that it is safe to resume normal operations, mass notification systems can create a programmatic process for sharing information.

Actionable information

Messages should be built with clear instructions and actionable information so people who receive alerts know exactly what is happening and what they are expected to do. Mass notification systems make this easy, by allowing campus leaders to prebuild text and audio messages that can be loaded and deployed when an event occurs. This relieves the pressure from administrators trying to create messages in the midst of a chaotic situation.

Being able to provide information as the event is ongoing helps communicate with people on campus that leaders are handling the situation. It also helps minimize confusion. In a world where rumors on social media can outpace the rate at which campuses can share information, knowing that updates are being sent from a reliable source can help cut down on questions and uncertainty. With messages in place, campuses need to consider how messages get delivered.

During an active shooter situation, no one wants to be left in the dark. Mass notification systems offer a wide range of integration options to ensure messages are received by everyone. This is often best accomplished by leveraging text and audio messages delivered to on-site and mobile devices. Depending on the flexibility of the system, desk phones, speakers, paging systems, desktop computers, digital signage, cell phones, and more can all be integrated and leveraged to share simultaneous information.

Delivering information to the widest audience possible helps ensure no one misses a message when it matters most because every part of campus is being reached, and being able to reach people on mobile devices can help keep them out of campus buildings that are under threat.

Active shooter alerts

Recognizing the threat of an active shooter is also possible with help from a mass notification system. Campuses can create a multitude of options for triggering active shooter alerts, including manual and virtual panic buttons, mobile apps and speed dials. This creates a single touch activation method, meaning messages get out quickly, and because activation methods are available throughout campus, messages can be sent from anywhere. This can greatly reduce the time it takes for people to become aware that a situation is happening.

Third-party integrations with active shooter detection systems can also be tied into a mass notification to automate triggers when a gunshot is heard. Call monitoring services can also automate triggers to alert people when 911 is dialed from an on-campus phone to help campus leaders know the moment something goes wrong and anticipate assistance from law enforcement and first responders. Every tool a campus has at its disposal should be leveraged during a critical event to create the safest environment possible.

When an event is taking place, active management is crucial. With a mass notification system, campus leaders can gain key insights and collaborate to assess the event as it unfolds and make decisions about their response. When an initial alert goes out, key stakeholders can receive an invitation to join a virtual space or conference call. Expanded integrations with tools like Microsoft Teams, Webex, Zoom and Slack offer new ways to get people together quickly, share resources and information and determine the best course of action.

Campus leaders can also send out notifications to students and staff that ask for a response. This could be a simple question such as “Are you safe?” or in the case of an evacuation “Have you vacated the building?” This can help campus leaders identify who is safe and who needs assistance.

Learn about developing threats

Advancements like panic buttons available within mobile apps offered by mass notification systems are a way for campuses to offer a direct connection between those that need help and those that can offer assistance. It also provides a way for campus leaders to learn about developing threats before they become serious issues. The moment the button is pressed, the person who activated it can be tracked by campus safety team members so they know their location. The safety team can also call the person directly to better understand why they need assistance and offer guidance to keep them out of harm’s way.

Some mass notification systems also offer the ability to schedule messages. For events that take longer to resolve, schools can have repeating messages go out advising people to stay where they are or to avoid certain areas of campus that are still under threat. Scheduled messages can also be used to help prevent active shooter events during normal operations by offering instructions for what people should do if they observe suspicious activity.

When an event has ended, some mass notification systems can generate reports so campus leaders can understand how well their response worked. Data points like how many alerts were sent out, whether alerts were able to reach their intended target, and other metrics can provide valuable information that informs future decision-making. It can highlight gaps in processes and procedures, technological failures that need to be corrected, and opportunities to be more proactive to prevent future incidents.

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent an active shooter situation, there are many opportunities to create a safe campus using the right tools. Mass notifications systems can help make every step of an active shooter response plan actionable, so less time is spent checking off items on a list, and more effort can be devoted to helping those in need.


Paul Shain is President and CEO of Singlewire Software, developers of InformaCast. This article first appeared on SSI sister site Campus Safety.

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