Mass Text Software Becoming Standard Protocol for Emergency Notification

Map of all US school shootings since 2013

Key Drivers

I recently saw an article from Campus Safety magazine that discussed how college campuses are attempting to maximize the ROI of their alert systems. This isn’t a surprise, as it has become mandatory for schools to have some sort of mass communication system in place for emergencies. Sadly, school campuses from elementary through college have lost their sense of security after so many stories of campus violence. We’ve all mourned the tragedies of Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Virginia Tech. There have been 142 school shootings in the U.S. since 2013 and nearly every state has been affected…see the above map.

On top of everything schools have to contend with each year , these horrific crimes have quickly placed campus security at the top of the priority list. The mass notification system market is responding and is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion USD by 2021, due in part to the growing demand for public safety and increased awareness for emergency communication solutions.

Squeezing Out ROI from Pinched Budgets

The drive to eke out as much ROI as possible from these communication tools is understandable given the strained resources of many schools. The article reminds us that email was the mainstay for all electronic communications prior to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. Our culture has evolved significantly since then, thanks to millennials who have set the standard for instant, real-time communications. While email still may have its place, it isn’t considered fast or reliable enough for emergency notifications.

One of the best ways for any organization, including schools, to increase ROI on an investment is to be able to extend it into other areas or for additional uses than originally planned. While mass text software may be budgeted for campus security and administrators, other departments may find the ability to communicate more effectively with groups of people highly beneficial.

Mass text software is ideal for reaching any group with important information, such as class changes or cancellations, weather-related issues, reminders and nudges, and announcements about upcoming events. Schools, in particular, have a large number of student groups, alumnae, boosters, parents, and other populations who can opt in for text notifications that can be delivered in real time using mass text software.

Campus Safety says emergency notification system costs vary widely, depending on the size of the campus, location, and other variables, but is considered a significant portion of an operating budget. Most schools now recognize the need for an integrated approach that combines multiple technologies to reach the broadest audience. Mass texting software, however, is considered on the lowest end of the cost spectrum and should be included in any mass notification plan.

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The Value of Mass Texts

One of the benefits of texting alerts is that they are rarely ignored. Unlike the dismal open rate for email, SMS text messages have an open rate of 98 percent. Since 86 percent of college-aged adults carry smartphones with them, there’s a good chance they will see an emergency notification text within seconds of it being sent.

The Virginia Tech shooting had a significant impact across the country, particularly for residents of the state. Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) conducted a ground-breaking survey of its staff, faculty, and students, asking them various questions about their perception of safety in different areas of campus during different times of day. Based on their answers in the past, the school has implemented a layered approach which includes several different types of emergency notifications.

From campus sirens to uniformed campus police, the school is trying different methods simultaneously to not only protect its students, but give them peace of mind that they are safe anywhere on campus. When asked what methods succeed most in helping them feel informed of an emergency situation, 75 percent of respondents said the school’s text alerts helped them learn about safety on campus and was the best way to reach them.

Texting with Purpose

A caveat to using mass text software for non-emergencies is that the organization must be mindful of message overload. As with email, texts that come too often with irrelevant information will likely desensitize audiences who may later overlook the more critical emergency notifications. Each organization will have to find the right balance between channels and messaging in order to achieve the desired effect.

In the case of VCU, the system is primarily used for communicating information and alerts, such as campus crime. For the first six months of 2016, the school issued six texts alerts for cases of shots fired, robberies, and a car fire. During that same period, only once did they feel it necessary to issue an “all-system alert” that included the sirens, text messages, and wall-mounted alert beacons in classrooms, dormitories, and other campus locations.

Campus Safety magazine reiterates the benefits I see all the time from organizations implementing a comprehensive mass notification system that includes texting:

“Solutions that are used appropriately can increase the community’s knowledge about safety and security issues happening on campus, which enables students, faculty, clinicians, visitors and staff to take responsibility for their own protection.

“Additionally, mass notification systems can reduce the number of calls from parents, friends and other family members when an emergency occurs because the campus is proactively communicating with them. They can also address the rumors being disseminated by the media and social networks that may not be accurate.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.