Grasping the Diverse Life-Safety Needs of a Campus

As the associate vice president for campus safety and security for the University of Texas at Austin, I oversee a campus of 53,000 students, 17,000 staff and faculty, and about 3,000 visitors daily. Located just blocks from the Texas State Capitol, UT has 160+ buildings on the more than 400-acre main campus. I am responsible for the operation of the UT Police Department, Environmental Health & Safety, Fire Prevention Services, Emergency Preparedness, as well as Parking and Transportation Services. 

So what are my top concerns for the coming academic year? Primarily, communications and establishing the structure and the development of campus safety and security program plans. In discussing emergency communications for a higher education setting, my hope is to improve SSI readers’ understanding of the multifaceted aspects to planning and execution in this unique vertical market.

Implementing a Multilayered Approach

There are two important facets to campus communications. First and foremost, due to the turnover each year, we can never assume that our community understands what to do in an emergency situation. So we begin each year reaching out with consultations throughout the campus. That includes orientations and as many face-to-face meetings as possible. For incoming students, we start pre-orientation with teasing materials contained in letters and Web sites. This includes coaxing the students to learn more about life-safety concerns such as “How do you sign up for emergency texting?”; “Do you know what to do if the siren goes off when you are on campus?”; and, “What are these blue light things on campus?”

When new students attend campus orientations, we ensure that critical emergency information is included and stressed by student orientation leaders. We do, however, understand that most students tend to mentally dump this information the minute they leave orientation. As a result, there must be a follow-up briefing at the start of the school year, including orientations by university resident hall staff members. 

Additionally, we require each professor to include in their syllabus instruction on what to do during an emergency. Instructors are also asked to commit five minutes during the first class day to discuss emergency planning. We recognize the reality that no one communications system is 100% reliable and there is no guarantee that a single system will reach every community member. UT operates multiple systems and methods to disseminate information in the event of an emergency, including: emergency Web page; outdoor warning system (siren); text messages; pagers; computer pop-up alerts; social media; flat-panel displays throughout the campus; E-mail; mass media communications; in-building loud speakers and notification systems; reverse 911; 800 phone number; and an integrated campus radio system.

Most significant is for a campus system to have redundancy and template messages for quicker response time. It is also vital that the process to initiate these systems is examined in detail. We use UTPD dispatch personnel to operate the siren if needed, as well as text. Ideally, responsibility for the other systems should be assigned to other offices, since dispatch can be quickly consumed with emergency responses.

The second most important factor to have in place for a robust program is establishing the structure and the development of plans. UT has consolidated the responsibility for campus safety and security under my office. This has greatly helped our ability to plan and coordinate.

Additionally, I chair the University Campus Safety & Security Committee, which comprises about 40 offices and meets monthly. Here we discuss all campus safety and security issues. This does wonders to cut through the typical university silos.

I invite you to peruse the following online material as an example of just some of the campus security and life-safety efforts at UT:;;

Campus safety and security is a complicated business, one that is a never-ending endeavor. It takes an effort by all stakeholders to create and sustain an effective emergency preparedness system.

Bob Harkins is Associate Vice President for Campus Safety and Security at the University of Texas at Austin.

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