Creating a Crisis-Ready Emergency
Notification Policy

Late last week, the state of Virginia ran an update on the official report on the Virginia Tech massacre, correcting factual errors and revealing details about breakdowns in emergency communications on the day of the crisis. The report found that the campus had two contradictory emergency notification policies, which stalled efforts the day of the crisis.

We asked Cindy Lawson -- assistant to the chancellor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and one of the leading experts on crisis communications -- to speak to what lessons could be learned from the updated report. "Hindsight is great," Lawson cautions, "and when crises happen at other institutions, it's important for all of us to learn not just from real or perceived mistakes but also from their successes." That said, the Virginia Tech incident offers an effective lesson in the importance of having a clear emergency notification policy.

What's Absolutely Critical to Include

"I really believe that it's the "obvious" that is, more often than not, overlooked."
Cindy Lawson, University of North Carolina Wilmington

In crafting an emergency notification policy, Lawson notes that it is crucial that certain questions be asked by your institution's public information officer. These include:

What if one or more of the critical employees responsible for the plan's execution are at a conference, are on vacation, or are otherwise unavailable?  Have others been trained? How long ago? Are they prepared to step in as backups?

What types of "holding statements" does your plan include, so that messages can be disseminated easily and quickly? Lawson recommends having your senior administrators and your university attorney review those statements now, before a crisis hits. During the crisis, everything will be time-critical. "It is better to communicate partial or incomplete information rather quickly than to wait a long time to release thorough or complete information," Lawson notes. "In a world where social media are prevalent, either you must get your message out or others will do it for you."

Next, what is the approval process for sending those messages?  In a crisis, the fewer people involved in the writing and approval process, the better. Identify clearly who those individuals are. Also, consider:

  • Do the individuals who have the authority to create messages also have the ability to send them?
  • Do they know the "codes" or have they been given the "clearance" to make that happen?
  • Can they send those messages only if they are on campus, or can they send them from anywhere in the world?

Finally, check whether your various systems for communicating in an emergency have been tested thoroughly. When were they last tested? It is dangerous to assume that just because an emergency notification system worked six months ago, it will also work today. "Also," Lawson adds, "you need to test what will happen when all of your communication systems are deployed simultaneously. Do parts of the system 'crash?'"

Criteria for Issuing an Emergency Notification

While some criteria will be culturally specific to your institution, ensure that the critical people on your campus know exactly what incidents or circumstances will trigger your emergency notification systems. At a minimum, Lawson suggests, these are the types of situations that warrant an immediate notification -- "and by that, I mean as quickly as possible":

  • If the safety of individuals on campus is definitely at risk (for example, an impending blizzard, hurricane, or tornado);
  • If something has happened that could affect the safety and well-being of individuals on campus (for instance, a suspect is "on the loose" or an area of campus has become environmentally unsafe);
  • If there is an ongoing situation (such as a crime or a chemical spill) about which the campus needs to know immediately, either to "take cover" or "stay away from altogether";
  • If something has happened on campus, but is over quickly (though the situation has been rectified and there is no longer any danger to the safety of faculty, staff, or students, there may be individuals who are aware that "something" has occurred, and you will need to act quickly to counter the spread of rumors and misinformation);
  • And finally, if nothing has happened at all, but information is circulating via social networking sites or traditional media that may be incorrect and damaging to the university or to a department or program.

Note that in the last two examples, there is no threat to the safety or well-being of individuals on your campus. Yet an emergency notification is still critical, because its absence may allow the rapid spread of harmful misinformation.

If the Lights Go Out

Besides drafting pre-approved "holding statements" and testing your notification system on a regular basis (and under various crisis scenarios), Lawson recommends having a backup process in place for disseminating information that does not require computers, or even electricity. She cites a case at Texas A&M University, when the school had to deploy such a system about seven years ago after the electrical grid unexpectedly shut down throughout much of Texas. Lawson advises identifying those staff on your campus who use walkie-talkies or other communication systems with backup generators, and ensuring that you have a plan in place to tap that resource if needed.

"These employees can be dispatched to go physically to buildings and classrooms and deliver messages in person. Although more time consuming, they are nevertheless effective in communicating with the campus community when electricity is unavailable."
Cindy Lawson, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Examples include police dispatchers, housekeeping dispatchers, bus dispatchers, and some student affairs administrators. In the case at Texas A&M, bus drivers informed students that classes were cancelled. Physical plant workers went from room to room, from building to building, advising faculty, staff, and students that the campus was closing for the rest of the day. "Meanwhile," Lawson remembers, "a press release was handwritten by the public affairs office and delivered by car to those media outlets that were still operating by using generators."

In short, have alternative systems for communication ready, and ensure that those systems are tested frequently, as well. "Murphy's Law prevails," Lawson remarks. "You need to have choices. You can't count on one single system for communicating. You need multiple systems in place."