Emergency Mass Notification Systems

Emergency warning systems provide rapid notification to those at risk from hazards and enable them to take protective actions. U.S. institutions of higher education rely on mass notification warning systems to share urgent information with their campus population when their safety or security is threatened.

Campus communities adopted mass notification systems in the wake of several campus incidents, most notably the 2007 shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. Unique emergency management challenges surround institutions that are responsible for education, research, and public services in their community. As colleges and universities manage the hazards and threats they face, institutions encounter obstacles in achieving prompt message delivery and swift stakeholder decision making.

Despite the recognition that colleges and universities play a central role in providing warning, limited attention has been devoted to emergency mass notification systems and their effectiveness as a warning tool. The purpose of this article is to identify and describe the social, technological, and institutional factors that influence the performance of higher education mass notification warning systems.


As the limited research specific to higher education shows, campus communities continue to face challenges in providing clear, rapid, and reliable emergency notifications. While student cell phone ownership is high at approximately 85%, many college students are unwilling to provide cell phone numbers to campus authorities in order to maintain their privacy, reduce e-mail spam, and minimize costs. In addition to stakeholder preferences, technology challenges impact college warning capabilities.

Gulum and Murray explored the effectiveness of mass notification systems, and argued that buying the best technology available did not equate to having an effective notification system. They conclude that shortfalls in infrastructure may be overcome with awareness, multi-model communication channels, and tailoring a strategy that meets campus needs. The warning capabilities of higher education institutions have received limited scholarly attention. The generalizable findings in social science warning research focus largely on individuals and communities and may not properly translate to the higher education setting. This research gap describes the focus of the following analysis.

The Study

In the summer of 2012, data was collected from 40 universities, including the number of contacts within the mass notification system registry, number of deliveries per system activation, number of successful SMS text deliveries, integration of social media, telecommunications provider, emergency notification procedures, list of authorized officials, annual costs, mass notification tool vendors, emergency management plans, and student newspaper articles on the warning provided. Policies, guidelines, and laws consistent with campus notification and emergency response were obtained from the U.S. Department of Education website.

Information requested focused on the performance data of mass notification system activations in 2010 and 2011, emergency management plans, and related crisis communication procedures. inductive content analysis approach provided the structure to evaluate data. Data sources contained archival, public, and episodic records. This approach of sorting and coding aided the identification of general themes within a diverse sample and allowed for replicable and valid inferences. Categories derived from the data lead to identification of independent variables that influence notification system performance. Feedback from higher education emergency managers contributed towards content validity of associated records and findings.

Challenges of Social Factors

The clarity of warning messages is critical in relaying emergency information. The use of simple language allows for message recipients to understand the situation and the appropriate response needed. Terms such as shelter in place, evacuation, and lockdown are likely to appear in a university notification. The receiver may interpret these terms differently. Several notifications observed used terms such as shelter in place due to a gas leak or severe weather threat, but did not explicitly state to stay inside or away from certain areas.

One of the challenges in using plain language rather than associated terms centers on the limitations on the number of characters an SMS text can contain. Including non-message content, text messages may be limited to less than 140 characters. Crafting a message that includes all necessary information using simple language that is easily understood can be a challenging, especially when crafting a message with a sense of urgency. Email or voicemail content that is too lengthy due to extensive explanation of the threat and appropriate response may cloud warning message clarity.

Another challenge for mass notification systems is communicating enough information to prompt the desired stakeholder behavior. For example, notification messages sent by institutions that excluded the type of hazard in a text message lead to recipient confusion. Student newspaper articles and social media comments support this notion, and indicated instances of inaction as a result of synthesizing the limited information available. Campus community members notified with vague or incomplete hazard information would speculate on the source of the hazard or threat.

Instruction given to take action allowed for speculation of a bomb threat or armed subject being the threat or some other worst case scenario. As a result, warning message interpretations can raise uncertainties in the system and lead to bad decisions. Vague warnings with insufficient information may also lead to the lack of protective action. Accurate and specific message content, usually in the form of a text message, automated voicemail, or email, require clear hazard information and what actions to take as a result.

Challenges of Technological Factors

Institutions use a number of emergency mass notification services with a variety of notification features. Many institutions integrate web site, electronic signage, and public announcement systems into their mass notification systems.

Selection of a specific notification tool may be based on several factors. These include existing information technology infrastructure, budget, product features, and enterprise integration needs, such as notifications sent from the Student Accounting Department to individuals with past due tuition bills. System costs may be linked to the number of devices and messages received. The usability and complexity of the system activation sequence varies, especially when generating content for a message versus using pre-scripted messages. Most systems allow for activation in multiple ways, including online and/or telephone interfaces. These numerous options indicate the potential for a complex system of integrated warning channels with both visual and audible components.

Most notification systems provide summary reports on successful and unsuccessful deliveries after an alert is sent. The success rate and speed of reaching selected contacts relies on several distinct factors: currency of contact information, number of attempts to reach a contact, number of phone numbers associated with each contact, and size of contact registry. The live delivery of a message is not guaranteed and may be hindered by a series of delivery obstacles. After a drill or incident activation, select campus community members turned to social media platforms or student newspapers to communicate that they did not receive a notification from the university.

Others state that they received some but not all of the notifications. Institutions also vary in their approach in obtaining stakeholder contact information. Emergency notification systems may follow an “opt-in” approach, where stakeholders would need to sign up for the service in order to receive notifications. This may lead to low participation and require a strong campaign to persuade the campus community to sign up for the service. Other institutions have an “opt-out” selection available, with stakeholders choosing to remove themselves as a contact from certain message deliveries, such as SMS text or email.

Challenges of Institutional Factors

Bureaucratic considerations associated with the activation of mass notification varied widely with each institution. Several universities make a distinction between three elements of warning message construction and delivery.

The elements are those authorized by policy to determine the need for an alert broadcast, those tasked to generate a message, and those who will activate the system. Campus units such as law enforcement, emergency management, public affairs and communications, environmental health and safety, and the chief administrative officer often shared some combination of these distinct roles. This suggests that the entire warning process from threat identification through message delivery and interpretation is as varied as the institutions themselves. For example, several institutions contain the warning process entirely within the law enforcement function, while others incorporate many other departments into the warning sequence.

Several legal obligations also influenced the notification processes. Amendments with the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008 require institutions to disclose procedures used to notify the campus community of a threat or emergency situation. These crisis communication procedures require statements that the institution “will, without delay, and taking into account the safety of the community, determine the content of the notification and initiate the notification system”. This statement suggests legal pressure to quickly provide a mass notification though the clarity of a message and sufficient information in the warning may suffer in order to meet the timely legal requirements. Crisis communication procedures largely did not expand upon the timeliness in the notification process.


Many institutions in this study largely based their planning on institutional and technological factors, e.g. pre-scripted messages, crisis communication procedures, and registry contact information. Few institutions embraced social aspects in their warning strategy. In many cases, seasonal tests and notification systems drills are largely technical in nature. These drills would test technical readiness rather than the social and organizational aspect of rehearsing crisis communication procedures. Cumbersome procedures may affect timeliness of message delivery in crisis. These drills may be focused on the wrong aspects of the campus warning process.

Institutions differ in their acknowledgement of social, technological, and institutional concerns, which may impact the success rate and quality of the warning provided. The unique mixture of human response along with policy and legal requirements offer intriguing research opportunities in university decision making and warning dissemination. In addition, the higher education setting provides an environment for exploring overall effectiveness of multimodal emergency communication. There are also questions surrounding what is considered a successful notification and the associated performance measures that would entail. The growing trend in the number of incidents on college and university campuses highlights the need for more focus being paid to emergency mass notification systems.

About the Author
Luis Tapia teaches Disaster Exercise Design and Private Sector Issues in an Emergency Administration and Planning (EADP) program that offers an innovative curriculum emphasizing professional competency for undergraduates interested in a career in the emergency management field.