By Mark J. Fletcher
Unfortunately, today’s climate, discernably marked by ever-increasing security threats in all environments, implementing comprehensive Emergency Notification Systems (ENS) in our educational institutions and facilities has become a necessity rather than an afterthought or luxury. This urgent need is particularly prevalent in faith-based schools, which face unique challenges due to growing social influences and prejudices.
The Unique Landscape of Faith-Based Schools
Faith-based schools, while providing a nurturing environment, are often caught between various social dynamics. These schools not only serve educational and extra-curricular purposes, but also as community hubs, which can make them highly visible targets for violent acts. The diverse threats these schools face on a regular basis necessitates the pressing need for a sophisticated, situationally aware, and flexible approach to initiating and managing numerous varieties of emergency notifications, ideally from a common platform.
Diverse Notification System Need
Faith-based schools, specifically, must consider implementing an ENS that can adapt to different scenarios because of the various threats that target these institutions. Systems being evaluated must allow sending out alerts in a wide range of situations, from operational notifications for natural disasters and medical emergencies to more urgent and immediate threats like active shooter situations or bomb threats prevalent today.
Initial points to evaluate notifications include:
- The best modality for the desired message; Text, Audio, or Visual?
- The expected message length?
- The anticipated number of recipients?
- Total bandwidth and time required to send?
- Is acknowledgment tracking and escalation needed?
Selecting the Appropriate Mode of Alerting
The effectiveness and success of any ENS implementation will largely depend on the alerting mode. Based on the situation, audience, and urgency, the message originators should be able to choose the desired message modality. This allows the optimal method to be employed as dictated by conditions and recipients.
Common modalities will include:
- Text Messages and Emails: Essential for rapid communication in emergencies, especially to specific individuals or groups.
- Social Media and Mobile Apps: Useful for a wider public engagement, requiring explicit and real-time updates about an incident. This information is generally sent publicly and may not be appropriate for specific issues where information should not be freely made public.
- Public Address Systems: Crucial for immediate on-site alerts, especially in lockdowns and other situations where specific language must be used to properly convey a message. These are also difficult to control as far as distribution is concerned, and often receipt confirmation is not possible.
- Desktop Alerts: Effective for ensuring that staff and students receive notifications directly on their device, where instant notifications and graphic-based information can be conveyed for explicit directional information.
- Silent Alarms: Essential when discretion is necessary, such as when panic needs to be minimized.
- Audible and Visual Alarms: Useful in urgent situations requiring a rapid response from the entire population. In addition to calling attention to the incident itself, the bad actors are also made aware – losing any level of surprise.
When choosing notification hardware, take care to define the most appropriate method to deliver a specific alert notification type based on possible outcomes. Each device modality will provide a specific type of notification solution and purpose and will be the most effective in certain situations.
For instance, text messages are invaluable during an active shooter event, as they provide instructions to follow for a response. In contrast, emails may be more appropriate for important but less urgent communications like weather alerts.
Strobe lights are beneficial when trying to provide visual reference. However, color and cadence need to be carefully considered to assist in communicating urgency. Addressable strobe light units are now available that can signal in multiple patterns and colors. This allows a single device to be addressed by multiple dial codes for the desired effect. A simple upgrade of the light unit itself can reuse existing cabling and triple the effectiveness of the unit.
Tracking and Escalation
Another critical component of an effective ENS solution is tracking notifications and escalating them, if necessary. If an initial alert goes unacknowledged, the system should automatically escalate to other forms of communication. This ensures that all members of the community are reached effectively.
AI in Escalation Protocols
Incorporating basic AI algorithms in ENS can significantly enhance the effectiveness of these escalations. AI can analyze the situation, as well as the success of previous notification attempts, and then decide the next path forward. This specific technology can be adapted to faith-based and nonfaith-based environments, tailoring the response to each institution’s unique and dynamic needs as they evolve.
The Value of Open API Systems
For an ENS to be truly effective, it must be versatile and interoperable. Only truly open API-based systems can foster this flexibility. Institutions with this functionality can integrate various technologies, unrestricted by a specific manufacturer. This approach is beneficial in the long term, allowing schools to adapt their systems as technology evolves and as their needs change.
Implementing a robust, versatile, and intelligent ENS in educational institutions, especially in faith-based schools, is an indispensable part of security infrastructure. Given the diverse range of threats currently faced, these systems must be capable of alerting the community in various scenarios, tracking alerts, and escalating as needed. The use of AI and open API systems will serve to further enhance their effectiveness, ensuring that organizations not only respond to emergencies but are also prepared for them.
In a world where the safety of students and staff is paramount, a well-structured ENS is not just a tool for crisis management; it is a fundamental component of the educational environment.
Mark J. Fletcher, ENP, is a renowned expert in emergency systems with a distinguished, four-decade career in public safety technology. As the vice president of public safety at 911inform, Fletch is instrumental in driving innovations and technological advancements in emergency response systems, ensuring that public safety agencies and businesses are equipped with the latest NG911 tools to manage emergencies effectively, www.911inform.com.