Digital Media Delivers Effective Emergency Communications On Campus

For many of us old enough to recall, news of the event immediately triggered memories of Charles Whitman, the sniper who fired down upon the campus from the University of Texas Tower in August 1966. While the specifics of the two events are quite different, a major, yet easy-to-overlook difference is particularly noteworthy: campus communications. Forty-four years ago, radio and television carried the burden of warning the public about the presence of the sniper. Unfortunately, not many people at universities tune into radio or TV during class.

Today, new digital means of communications abound, and spreading the word that a gunman has opened fire on campus can be immediate, focused and highly effective. Text messaging, e-mails and cell phones make it simpler for campus authorities to reach individual students and faculty within minutes of an event occurring.

Digital signage is also an important component in this digital communications mix. After all, many students are advised to turn off their cell phones during class, so the availability of emergency messaging on digital signs strategically located around a campus provides another layer of protection in the process of communicating urgent emergency messages to students, faculty and staff.

A new study from Platt Retail Institute, “Communication Effectiveness in Higher Education” reveals the significant role of digital signs in communicating on campus. A press release announcing the study quotes Steven Keith Platt, PRI Director and Research Fellow as saying: “Our research study found that 97 percent of students prefer to receive information via digital channels, rather than from non-digital sources. Overall, text messages were found to be the most effective distribution channel, followed closely by digital signage.”

It’s important to note that emergency messages delivered via digital means like text messages and digital signs do not have to relate simply to shootings. A variety of emergency situations require quick, accurate communications. Universities and other institutions regularly plan for contingencies such as fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and many others. Developing an effective communications strategy that taps the power of digital communications should be part of that contingency planning.

When it comes to dynamic signage and emergency communications, a variety of specific pages with the appropriate emergency-related information should be prepared prior to any event as part of a well-planned, campus-wide digital signage network. In the event of any given contingency happening, pages can quickly be updated with event-specific information and distributed to all or some of the signs on the network.

Having been involved with the planning and roll out of some of these systems, I want to offer a few ideas for those who haven’t given digital signage and emergency communications much thought. First, the digital signage network administrator should coordinate with on-campus and off-campus first responders as digital signage pages are prepared for various contingencies. Often, plans already exist and can be drawn upon to create effective communications.

Second, provide for Internet access to digital signage control in case the emergency circumstance prevents access to the campus command and control center and the computers ordinarily used to drive digital signage messaging. Third, be sure to password protect access to the digital signage network.

While the very thought of a gunman on campus, a tornado striking a building or some other contingency is tremendously disturbing, it is necessary to plan for them before they happen. Effective communications can save lives, and supplementing text messages and emails with emergency digital signage messaging might mean the difference between preserving innocent life and a lifetime filled with regret.