Critical Communications, Education Communication, mass notification

3 Ways Critical Communications Systems Benefit Higher Education

By Shannon Gallo

Institutions of higher education operate in an increasingly complex landscape and must be more prepared for the unexpected than ever before. Universities and colleges have a good deal of experience with critical events such as severe weather or utility failures. But in recent years, they’ve had to plan and prepare for new types of challenges, such as active shooter situations, cyberattacks or a pandemic. This includes ensuring there is a fast, dependable and easy-to-use method for communicating with students and faculty to keep everyone safe and informed.

In addition to critical communications, they also have other less urgent and more routine communication needs to handle.

Colleges and universities often have complex structures, with many diverse stakeholder groups. Administrators, instructional staff and students fall into different matrixed categories, and this adds complexity to the communications structure for both urgent and everyday communications needs. Every higher education institution can benefit from an effective mass notification system (MNS) that can deliver both critical and routine messages to all stakeholders.

To help illustrate how higher education institutions such as colleges and universities can use critical communications, consider these three examples:

Rapidly Alert Stakeholders During a Crisis

College campuses must be prepared for anything – from natural disasters and pandemics to active shooters and cyber-attacks. When incidents occur, the ability to rapidly send critical alerts, such as orders to shelter in place or evacuate, is crucial.

An emergency mass notification system (EMNS) can reach everyone in a matter of minutes using a range of communication methods. Higher education institutions can also benefit from using defined crisis scenarios, which allows them to trigger an alert automatically. This eliminates time-consuming, manual decision-making when an event occurs, allows for early detection of the issue and enables fast alerting. Additional important capabilities include system feedback reports, which enable campus safety teams to see who has opened the messages and on which devices, so they can administer aid to stakeholders most at risk during a crisis. They can also use that information to improve crisis management plans following an emergency.

Boston University (BU) is a leader in this space. The university has an annual enrollment of 33,000 students and its campus is covers 134 acres within the city of Boston. Since 2005, BU has taken its command center communications from a phone tree to a cloud-based, fully integrated alerting and collaboration system that can get a message out to 46,000 people in under 30 seconds.

With OnSolve Critical Communications, the university has been able to streamline its command center communications. Messages can be highly targeted – alerts can be sent to the entire community, or a specific department, building or zone as appropriate.  BU also uses the system to communicate with key Boston city contacts, as well as coordinate within the command center regarding who from the team will respond, and when.

Automate Routine Reminders and Messages

While crisis situations are more urgent, there are frequently more routine needs that occur on a regular basis. Automated ongoing communications can lighten the load for administrators, as well as promote a more seamless educational experience for the students. It can also be a challenge to keep track of important deadlines and time-consuming to remember other regular, routine tasks. Critical communications can help institutions achieve more reliably successful outcomes for these routine but important duties.

For instance, missed tuition payments are a problem because they can cause a student to be dropped from a class – bad news for both the student and the college. Automated payment reminders can eliminate this nuisance. As a result, everyone benefits – time is saved on both sides, the student stays current on tuition payment, and the university sees a positive impact to its cash flow.

Another example is scheduling of classes. Often, universities have tiered scheduling where students are eligible to sign up for classes at different times. Tracking this can be onerous for administrators, and students may not realize when it’s time to enroll in their classes for the next semester. An automated messaging system lightens the load for everyone involved.

Keep in Touch with Alumni

Alumni can provide both financial and developmental support for higher learning institutions and current students. Automated calls can enable universities to reach out to alumni using a personalized message. This helps maintain a more consistent outreach program and can yield higher donation revenue. This approach is also useful for boosting season ticket renewals and other events. With a critical communications system in place, the outreach program is not limited by the amount of manpower allocated to making phone calls.

When evaluating critical communications systems, be sure to look for these features:

  • Multimodal communications. Campus communities include a diversity of people – and communications preferences vary widely. That’s why it’s important to be able to deliver messages to a range of communication channels, including text, phone call, email, or push notification. Depending on the urgency of the event, it could be necessary to reach the employees, students, and other stakeholders at a moment’s notice – and having multiple channels will catch them wherever they are.
  • Collaboration capabilities. When every minute counts, the right people need to be mobilized very quickly, with specific roles and actions. The mass notification system should activate these team members with an easy-to-navigate workflow with task-based assignments. The right information, with two-way chat capabilities, should be available to the whole team to allow rapid collaboration and cross-team support.
  • Integration with the campus directory. Being able to reach all community members is essential, which means contact information needs to be continually refreshed. Without ongoing, proactive updates, contact information can easily get out of date as students move on and off campus, go back home for summer vacation, or graduate. Staff and professors also may move homes or offices. Integrating the critical communications software with the master campus directory saves time and avoids the possibility of human error or missed updates and ensures that community members can be reached where they are, when needed.

All higher learning institutions can benefit from a critical communications system.  Like Boston University, other institutions will find simplicity, speed and relevant information will help them save valuable time in a crisis—and every day. 

Download this white paper to learn more about evaluating and strengthening your campus critical communications strategy.