April 12, 2011

Christopher Tapfer
Emergency Management Coordinator
Washington State University

Since the tragedy at Virginia Tech last year, a key topic of discussion on college campuses has been emergency communications. Some of the dozens of reports that were developed about the Virginia Tech incident criticized the University for failing to communicate the danger of the situation to its campus community until it was too late. This is a matter of debate, and won’t be discussed here, but the issue did focus attention on the need for a college to have an adequate supply of tools that can be used to inform, warn and notify a campus of emergency situations quickly and efficiently.

During the discussions about the incident at Virginia Tech, the topic of the Clery Act was brought up many times. The key issue related to the Clery Act was the requirements for “timely warnings to the campus community about crimes that pose an ongoing threat to students and employees” and whether or not Virginia Tech failed in their duty to comply with the Act. Again, this is a matter for others to decide, but it is important that you have an awareness of what the Clery Act is and isn’t, and how it can impact a college campus.

The Clery Act has many parts and details that are too complicated to discuss here. I recommend you visit the Security On Campus Inc. Website at for full details on the Clery Act. The following is taken from that page:

Clery Act Summary

  • Schools must publish an annual report disclosing campus security policies and three years worth of selected crime statistics.
  • Schools must make timely warnings to the campus community about crimes that pose an ongoing threat to students and employees.
  • Each institution with a police or security department must have a public crime log.
  • The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) centrally collects and disseminates the crime statistics.
  • Campus sexual assault victims are assured of certain basic rights.
  • Schools that fail to comply can be fined by the DOE.

Contrary to what some people have written, the Clery Act does not define how emergency communications will take place at a college campus, only the requirements for very specific reporting and publication of campus security policies and certain crime statistics as well as the need to have a method to provide “timely warnings”. This term has been interpreted broadly and misinterpreted in many cases. Ultimately, though, the need for adequate emergency communications tools on a campus should not be driven by a mistake in interpreting the Clery Act but by the need for the capability to inform your campus of any type of threat or hazard quickly and efficiently.

There are many emergency communications tools available to do this. Sirens; public address systems (that work either indoors or outdoors or both); direct notification systems, sometimes called “reverse 911” systems (that contact people personally by cell or landline phones using voice and or text messaging); email; websites, telephone “trees”; two-way radios; radio/television broadcasts etc. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages and each will likely reach a certain percentage of your campus community. Thus the concept that has been adopted is to have as many of these tools as possible available and sending a warning or notification on all of them. In this way you’ll reach the most people possible with the message.
Whatever communications tools your campus has adopted, Campus Recreation personnel will want to be sure that when a message is released, that those participating in recreation activities throughout campus get that warning and notification. At WSU we have discovered that activity participants at many of our indoor and outdoor facilities do not hear the siren/P.A. system when it is activated, or if they do not have a cell phone on them, will not get a direct notification from our system when it is activated. Campus Recreation staff need to be aware of these communications gaps wherever they occur and be prepared to take action to inform, warn and notify the activity participants in alternate ways if an emergency occurs. At WSU, all of our field and facility staff are linked by two-way radios, so the plan is when a campus-wide emergency notification is activated, the radios are used to make sure all staff are aware of the situation and can then inform and direct activity participants on what they should do to respond, depending on the circumstances. The procedures for this process needs to be written into emergency operations plans, personnel adequately trained and the procedure tested regularly to make sure it works.

With advance planning and development of these internal communications tools, Campus Recreation personnel will play an important part in relaying warning and notification to activity participants should the need arise. While this may not actually be mandated by the Clery Act, it certainly rises to the spirit of what the Clery Act intends – a safer and more secure campus.

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