Emergency Notification and the Protected Learning Environment

What happens when events outside demand that emergency information has to penetrate the protective cocoon of the classroom?

The amount of time college students spend inside classrooms -- from two to six hours daily -- creates a sizeable gap in mass notification system coverage for most colleges and universities. To target and penetrate the protected learning environment, it is time for schools to employ the power and accuracy of precision notification systems.

The one area where the interests of education, technology, and safety collide is in the university classroom. It is the heart of education, the core location where teachers and students engage in the symbiotic transfer of knowledge. Classrooms are single-purpose rooms dedicated to learning. The focus of the room is fixated on the teacher and the teaching experience. The classroom is also where you have anywhere from 10 to 100 or more people isolated from the outside world in a room with doors you cannot lock to keep danger out. In the eyes of campus safety experts, it is the perfect setting for a potentially bad situation.

The two primary Emergency Notification System (ENS) issues inside the classroom arise by architectural design and classroom culture. It is a space architecturally designed to minimize distractions from the outside. There is also a longstanding culture enforced by teachers to minimize distractions inside classroom walls. The one-two punch of these two classroom dynamics has a big impact on the effectiveness of the methods used for emergency notification.

The Classroom Cocoon
A classroom's architectural design is intended to insulate the occupants from outside noise and commotion. For example, look at these general specifications for classroom design:

"Classrooms should be concentrated on the lower floors of buildings to provide easy access for general students, as well as the disabled and support services. The uses of adjacent spaces must be carefully chosen to avoid distracting noises and sounds. A classroom should not be adjacent to mailrooms, reception areas, dining facilities, rest rooms, bicycle parking, loading docks, mechanical equipment rooms, and other similar noise producing areas. It is important to provide sound isolation from surrounding rooms that share common walls as well as direct air paths between rooms. To prevent unwanted noise transmission, classrooms and restrooms should not share common walls, floors, or ceilings, or should be designed to minimize sound transmission between rooms." -- Guidelines for the Design and Construction of Classrooms at the University of California at Santa Cruz

It is clear that at the most fundamental level, the teaching experience is treasured and meant to be uninterrupted.

As it always has been, chewing gum, passing notes, and cheating are still the worst offenses of classroom culture. But they are joined today by a relative newcomer: using a cell phone. The reasons that cell phones have become "technology non grata" run the gamut, from class disruption to cheating, sexting, texting, and coordinating fights. According to the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), 81 percent of K-12 schools do not allow use of cell phones in school. Sixteen states have gone so far as to pass laws against cell phone use in K-12 schools. In Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., and across the country, K-12 schools have banned the use of cell phones during school hours.

The same culture applies to the classroom experience in higher education. On college campuses, professors have taken an especially hard line against the use of cell phones and laptops because of the disruptions caused by calling and texting and surfing the Internet. Most classrooms have signs posted prohibiting use of cell phones, and many professors include similar language in the class syllabus. A National Education Association (NEA) survey shows that 85 percent of professors on college campuses support banning cell phones in their classrooms.

"I don't want students to have phones out during class," said Emily Drill, an adjunct lecturer in neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh and Allegheny College. "I make it a policy for phones to be turned off in the classroom." Drill said that even with her own policy in place, typically one or two students per class still try to text or answer calls. "I tell them to put it away, and that usually works."

Drill's simple request to "put it away" is one of the less-extreme examples of how professors discourage cell phone use in class. One professor's policy involves the use of a pop quiz every time a cell phone rings, and another professor counts it as an unexcused absence if a student leaves class to answer a call. Some professors confiscate phones; others add time to the end of class to make up for disruptions, and some will deduct points from final grades. To see the battle in action, you can watch students' phones get smashed and destroyed by professors on YouTube.

So it's clear that the classroom is one of education's sacred spaces. But what happens when events outside demand that emergency information has to penetrate the protective cocoon of the classroom?

Mass Notification Layers Fail to Penetrate
Unfortunately, the most predominant methods of mass notification used on university campuses -- cell phone/text messaging, e-mails, and web announcements -- are minimally effective in the classroom. According to a survey conducted by the University of Louisville, nearly 90 percent of universities and colleges use cell phone calling/text messaging systems for emergency notification; 98 percent use e-mail and 95 percent make announcements on the school website.

Nationally, on average, only 40-50 percent of students opt into a school's calling program. In a classroom of 25, that equates to 10 to 12 students covered by the calling system. If 75 percent of them (an arbitrary number) have their phones turned off in class, then only about two to three students in the room would be able to receive a message pushed out through the school's cell phone/text message ENS. Given that the calling system cannot assign priority to or target the classroom, it may be 30 minutes or more before a message appears on one of those phones. Fewer students bring laptop computers to class, but the same logic applies.

"Emergency notifications in the classroom setting must be made by more effective tools than e-mail, text messages, or web pages. Two-way communication systems, radio receivers, digital signage, or VOIP phones provide the most rapid means for emergency notification," said Dennis Sullivan, assistant EHS director and emergency manager at the University of Louisville.

"I think that someone would have to personally come to the classroom if we had an emergency scenario," Drill speculated. She said that while students are familiar with fire alarm drills, experience with other emergency evacuation events is minimal. Also, because she asks students to turn off their phones, her phone is also turned off, she said.

IP End Points Get the Job Done
The most effective means of alerting a classroom is to use a precision notification system that has dedicated, networked alerting devices inside the room. These may be proprietary alerting devices or VOIP phones. A precision notification system targets alerting devices by location and uses network infrastructure independent of consumer communications networks. The advantage is that these systems are capable of sending messages to one or all classrooms without alerting the entire campus population. It is a faster, more accurate way to deliver a warning.

One advantage of these devices is that they display text and provide audio information to everyone, including the professor, who is the appropriate authority to direct the class during an emergency. Additionally, these systems are activated only during an emergency and remove any reason for people to keep their cell phones or laptops active during class.

Sullivan indicated that at University of Louisville, emergency notification systems and academic endeavors have attempted to coexist without impacting each other adversely. The university has responded by placing VOIP phones in all of the classrooms. The phones are set to dial the university police if the receiver is picked up, but more importantly, the phones allow for emergency messages to be communicated in the classrooms using a text screen, audio, and flashing light. "During a recent tornado warning, every classroom was provided timely warning that was faster than text messages, e-mails, or our web page," Sullivan explained. "This system is not for everyone and would be extremely costly unless you already have converted the university from analog phones to digital phones."

When the message requires the class to shelter in place, it is important that text and voice information be conveyed. One environmental, health and safety director confided that she worries about a scenario where a dangerous situation outside occurs five minutes before classes are dismissed, meaning that thousands of students will walk headlong into a crisis. The ability to have those students shelter safely in class is critical and requires special consideration. Many fire alarms and outdoor sirens produce a warning tone only and cannot provide detailed instructions. In the event of a chemical spill, severe weather, violent crime, etc., coming out to see what is happening may be the wrong thing to do.

Newer fire alarm systems support live voice using a microphone at the panel, but you have to physically be in the building and have keys to the fire panel to operate it. All of these steps waste precious time. Also, most university campuses have a variety of fire alarms system installed over multiple decades, so not every building will have this capability.

According to the survey conducted by Sullivan, fewer than 20 percent of higher education institutions have deployed in-building ENS. Therefore, there are many classrooms of students who won't get emergency notification during class. Administrators who make the effort to deploy precision notification systems will fill a gap left by the other commonly deployed ENS layers. It is the best way to inform and protect more students while respecting the integrity of the classroom and the learning experience.

About the Author

Timothy Means is the Director of Product Management and a co-founder of Metis Secure Solutions, a developer of next-generation emergency notification solutions for higher education, commercial, and government organizations. Metis Secure Solutions (www.metissecure.com) is based in Oakmont, Pa.

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