Home | Policy & Reform | Emergencies put communication strategies into sharp focus for education establishments: opinion

Emergencies put communication strategies into sharp focus for education establishments: opinion

The most severe and prolonged bushfire season in Australia’s history, which has devastated communities around the country, was already raising questions about the preparedness of schools and universities to provide effective duty of care and communications for staff, students and communities.

Now the coronavirus outbreak is generating further debate, forcing schools, colleges and universities to re-examine how well placed they are to get accurate, factual information out to staff and students in such events, regardless of the circumstances. This includes the delicate management of misinformation.

It goes without saying, the safety and well-being of staff and students is a critical factor for all school and tertiary organisations, so duty of care measures are taken very seriously. As these institutions become more complex and connected – some with sprawling campuses the size of small cities – the technology, policies and practices used to maintain those safety standards must also evolve.

Increased complexity demands new solutions

The education sector is Australia’s third largest export, worth $32.4 billion to the economy. We have an extremely large contingent of Chinese students within our education system; 189,000 in the tertiary education sector alone. On 24 February, the Australian Government announced it would support recommendations from the Australian Heath Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) to maintain travel restrictions on anyone travelling from mainland China to Australia, to be reviewed regularly. This has thrown our university sector into chaos, with around 100,000 students unable to commence or resume their studies.

In some cases, this is impacting the whole student population, not just those at-risk students who are prevented from returning to Australia. Monash University in Melbourne, for example, decided to implement “a flexible semester one model with the first half of the semester delivered remotely for some units”. In other cases, media reports said that some students are finding a workaround to start their studies, like travelling to Australia via other countries, such as Thailand.

Educational institutions must deal with increasing complexity and assess an evolving set of risks. The broad geographical spread of many of these institutions can make this a challenging prospect. The Macquarie University campus in Sydney, for example, spans more than 126 hectares and brings together more than 40,000 students, 5,000 staff and countless visitors from the surrounding community.

It is not only responsible for communicating to its people located on campus, but also the thousands that travel to the university daily, or work at and travel between multiple university locations. Most pertinently, its duty of care extends to international students and teachers who may travel out of the country during term breaks.

Like any university, the safety of staff and students is of the utmost importance. With people constantly coming and going from campus, the need to be able to reach them anywhere, on any device, and at any time during an emergency is critical.

Surrounded by business parks, shopping centres and bushland, and with different organisations located on campus, such as hospitals and research centres, Macquarie University is susceptible to a variety of risks. These can include anything from the aforementioned fires or human viral threats, to chemical spills, traffic accidents, floods, damage to infrastructure and buildings, and other extreme weather events.

Communication is the key to effective response

In any environment, effective, real-time communication is vital. In the event of an incident, from a minor event such as a false fire alarm to the most serious, such as a terror attack, correct information needs to be disseminated to staff and students, first responders and other emergency services. In critical circumstances, a delay of even a matter of seconds can count.

There must also be the ability for two-way communications where people can confirm their safety and location, further enhancing the efficiency for first responders. Geo-targeted messages can also help security operations contact staff and students in need of assistance. For those providing that duty of care, a fast and effective response is also about having approved emergency plans captured in a robust, secure system.

Macquarie University’s campus security manager, John Durbridge says: “To be able to communicate quickly, effectively, and in real-time is absolutely critical in an emergency.

"We have a large-scale operation that requires a robust, interoperable solution that can easily communicate across multiple channels with multiple people, including our security staff, teachers, students and the campus community – as well as police, fire and emergency services.”

The duty of care for educational institutions extends far beyond major ‘physical’ incidents. Schools and universities are responsible for holding significant amounts of personal data, and they have a duty to keep that information as safe and secure as their people. This means using trusted systems to ensure the protection of sensitive personal details and any communications sent or received.

Particularly in the case of the coronavirus, another major challenge is the spread of misinformation, exacerbated by social media. However, if used in the right way, social media can also be an effective way of getting important updates out to an audience.

Macquarie University uses an integrated system that sends the same message to students and staff through Twitter, Facebook and desktop notifications, which are aggregated into an RSS feed. This is supplemented by text, telephone and email notifications, plus an alert sent to security staff through a dedicated first response mobile app. This multi-modal approach enables Macquarie University to reach a wider audience from a trusted source.

Technology underpins duty of care

For Australian educational institutions, there has never been a more important time to ensure the safety and security of staff, students, contractors and wider communities that contribute to the education environment.

Along with strict regulations, technology underpins these obligations, to enable effective communication, protection of data, timely responses to incidents and ongoing business continuity. However, institutions must be able to trust that technology to protect the people and information they are responsible for, and ensure it’s easy to use, easy to maintain and affordable within strict budgets.

The recent bushfires, floods and healthcare crises have prompted educational institutions to question whether they are truly crisis-ready and cyber-resilient. It’s time to think differently about ‘duty of care’. The technology choices to future-proof schools, colleges and universities today will help define their institutions tomorrow – and most importantly, keep the next generation of staff and students safe and secure.

David Nicol is managing director, BlackBerry – Australia and New Zealand.

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