Adam Enterkin, SVP EMEA, BlackBerry, provides practical advice for the education sector to bring its secure communication plans back up to date with an effective crisis management system
Education environments are uniquely innovative and fast-moving, with a wide variety of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices used on campus by students and faculty. The safety of staff, students, community and property is paramount. It is crucial to have a solution in place so your organisation can effectively respond to incidents, send alerts and critically account for your people before, during and after an event.
Today, local and state governments need to protect communities from a growing array of threats. Whether it’s a natural disaster like a hurricane or wildfire or a man-made crisis like a chemical spill or power outage, public agencies need to prepare for the worst. The reality, though, is that many communities aren’t ready, and this can expose residents and businesses to unacceptable risks to life and property.
Higher education institutions also face challenges not unlike a small city, and schools and universities must prepare to confront a similarly wide range of crisis events — both natural and man-made — that can endanger students, faculty, and staff and cause untold property damage.
It is up to local and state government leaders — and their counterparts at schools and universities — to do the research and make the necessary investments in systems that can effectively manage and mitigate the next crisis, both large and small. It’s not a question of if, but when the next event happens.
What should an effective crisis management system provide?
Personnel accountability — This is the ability to determine immediately if students and faculty are safe and accounted for. (Are they on-site or off? On-duty or off? Away on vacation?) If there are contractors and visitors on the premises during an emergency, the solution should also confirm their location and safety.
Effective communications — When a crisis hits, there is no time to waste. Communications need to be streamlined, intuitive, and rapid. It should also provide two-way capabilities for both outreach and response, so crisis managers can quickly receive status reports from the scene and assign tasks to resolve the situation.
In a rapidly changing environment, schools and universities need to be able to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions. This strategic capability involves learning from experiences – and those in other industries – and adopting best practices by delivering secure communication and building competence and capability across all aspects of an organisation.
At this uncertain stage in the crisis, education providers must continue to ensure their sites are prepared and can adapt to (sometimes sudden) disruptions. As we begin to see students and faculty staff going back to full-time study, schools have to be prepared for the possibility that cluster outbreaks may still occur, resulting in a potential lockdown and once again experiencing the inconvenience of continuing study via alternative means.
Schools need to make caring for their most valuable assets – staff and students – and maintaining operations a priority. Faculty leaders now need to test their resilience and challenge their continuity plans by revisiting their communication strategy and communication process that will enable the next phase in our “new normal”.
Below are four essential considerations to aid a successful transition back to school through an effective communication strategy:
Real-time visibility into student and staff safety
Account for all your personnel and students to facilitate an effective crisis response and restore order as quickly as possible — both critical to avoiding loss of life. Your crisis communications tool should allow emergency managers to request the status of individuals, select groups, or an entire populace and view the information on an at-a-glance dashboard to better understand the situation.
But simply communicating is not enough in a crisis, ensuring all key stakeholders have received your message in a clear and timely manner is crucial in a crisis situation. Your communication process should also tell you where your people are and filter out information only relevant to them and their role. A platform that enables communication, connectivity and collaboration, backed up by the highest level of security standards to sustain business, will enable your success.
Match your communications channels to your users
It is well known that people consume and digest information in many ways. In a school or university environment you have a massive cross-section of generations that use their devices in very differing ways, so ensuring your crisis communication strategy utilises a range of different channels is crucial. Assuming only one method or medium is enough will be detrimental to your success. When establishing yourself as the central source of truth during a crisis, you must leverage all the tools and channels available to you to ensure the dissemination of information is reliable.
If you urgently need to contact faculty members, we often assume that email is sufficient as one of the most common forms of communication. But teachers are often away from their computers busy teaching, and in a crisis situation you cannot always be sure that everyone has access to an internet connection or their corporate email, or indeed there hasn’t been a power or network outage. Consider other channels in your strategy like Apps, SMS/text messaging, radio, digital signage and social media.
Keep your class register up to date
Being able to reach your stakeholders and provide them with accurate information in a time of need is the first step in your crisis communication strategy. But you must also be sure you can account for them, coordinate a response if necessary and confirm they are safe.
An effective plan should include two-way communication channels. Having the ability to see where people are, and if they are safe, allows you to make decisions and take action.
As part of your return to school plan, consider introducing student surveys or health checks, or sending out daily safety reminders to capture sentiment and get staff what they need to help with the transition or manage a critical illness outbreak.
Network with trusted community organisations
Emergencies don’t occur in silos and having a network of trusted community organisations like local fire, ambulance and health authorities will prove critical as we navigate the different regional health guidelines and plan for returning back to work.
To keep on top of these relationships you must leverage the same best practices you have for your internal communications and ensure you can communicate, connect and collaborate with these external stakeholders. This trusted network will be a source of factual data that can influence your ability to respond to a situation, like an illness outbreak, or other threat that puts your people or other assets at risk.
Keeping your staff, students and community connected and safe when it matters most is going to be even more important to all education providers moving forward. An effective emergency notification system can literally be a lifesaver. To ensure ongoing continuity, schools and universities need visibility over as much information as possible in order to make the best decisions for the benefit of the school and its people. It is clear that is no easy task, but an established process and secure mechanism for communications will ensure that come what may, disruption won’t spell disaster as we start upon the road to recovery.