A Common Gap in Higher-Ed Security and How to Fix It

In today’s environment, higher-ed institutions are expending tremendous resources to keep their students, faculty, staff, and visitors safe from a variety of threats, including both human-caused threats like violence and vandalism, and environmental and weather-related events like fires, floods, and storms.

July 08, 2024 — by Fran Mozgai, CPP Director, Physical Security Services

In today’s environment, higher-ed institutions are expending tremendous resources to keep their students, faculty, staff, and visitors safe from a variety of threats, including both human-caused threats like violence and vandalism, and environmental and weather-related events like fires, floods, and storms.

Colleges and universities have been investing millions of dollars in physical security programs. Typically, expenditures that include security cameras, electronic access control systems, visitor management, motion-activated lighting, duress and burglar alarms, and mass notification platforms.

Yet, while these technological solutions contribute to the security ecosystem, they are not sufficient by themselves. Even the most advanced technologies eventually require monitoring and analysis to allocate appropriate resources in response to system alerts and make rapid-fire decisions when the technology shows that something is wrong.

In most universities and colleges, the security systems primarily report to the campus public safety function and likely a dispatch/communications center. While purposely investing in security technology is a crucial part of providing a reasonably secure campus environment, it is critical to ensure that the dispatch function is sufficiently staffed with properly trained personnel to fully leverage system capabilities.

Often, institutions invest substantial financial assets in contemporary security technology with little regard for the resources allocated to monitoring them and evaluating the data provided. Frequently, public safety dispatch is responsible for monitoring feeds from security cameras, card readers, panic devices, and burglar alarms, in addition to public safety radio transmissions and phone lines. During an active crisis,  the information pouring into dispatch can be like funneling the water from a firehose through a straw.

Without ample and adequately trained staff, dispatch can become a security gap that no technology can fix. Many universities and colleges, however, may not realize how critical it is to match their investment in security hardware with investing in sufficient human capacity to monitor and respond to that hardware’s data. Moreover, it may not be readily apparent to many institutional leaders just how many tasks dispatch must perform in a perfectly coordinated sequence to handle a critical incident to bring successful outcomes.

Consider this common scenario:

There is an on-campus shooting at night. The dispatch center is staffed with a single person who is now inundated with panicked calls from witnesses and radio traffic from public safety personnel. Public safety officers request that dispatch issue an emergency notification to the campus community to follow lock down procedures. As protocols can require, dispatch must also immediately advise both public safety and campus leadership to the unfolding situation as well as call in other local first responders, mutual aid, and respond to continuous requests for assistance from on-scene responders.

As the above example shows, when an emergency happens, dispatch may have to handle all the following tasks at the same time:

  • Maintain critical communications with first responders and ensure officer safety.
  • Answer incoming calls from students, parents, and media.
  • Dispatch first responders and use the feed from the security systems to direct them appropriately.
  • Monitor inputs from the security systems. 
  • Alert department and campus leadership.
  • Activate and monitor mass notification systems to alert the community to the crisis.

This whirlwind of activity requires dispatch staff to know what they are doing and to act in a deliberate and efficient manner. Therefore, an emergency cannot be the time when dispatch employees the first identify what their priorities should be and how they should sequence their actions. This is also not the time for employees to flip through manuals to understand how the systems under their supervision work.

It is also worth noting that, in addition to not being maximally efficient, overworked, and undertrained employees can be quickly overwhelmed, further diminishing their ability to function properly. Moreover, dispatching is highly stressful work, and the likelihood of burnout is high even when employees are well trained and not overworked. Creating suboptimal work conditions increases burnout and the subsequent costs associated with personnel turnover.

How to close the gap in higher-ed security

The first step in making dispatch more effective is to assess the current situation. A thorough understanding of what leadership expects compared against the policies and procedures governing how dispatch employees do their work, as well as the inputs and systems where dispatch receives information can yield significant data about potential improvements.

Typically, there are two major issues that colleges and universities need to address: staffing and training.

Staffing: Staffing is highly dependent on the size of the campus and the complexity of its security systems. Moreover, it is important to understand the full scope of the role and analyze how many people are needed to handle all the responsibilities of the job so that no element of the dispatch function is neglected.

Training: Dispatch personnel must be versed both in the policies and procedures of their job and in the operation of the systems they are monitoring. Higher-ed institutions must have clear guidelines for their dispatch employees about how to prioritize the various aspects of a response to an emergency. Ideally, dispatch employees will also get experiential training mimicking real-world scenarios so they can practice acting according to these guidelines and gain experience in a low-stress, low-stakes environment.

Higher-ed institutions should also invite system vendors to provide training to their dispatch personnel, including providing train-the-trainer programming for people who are responsible for onboarding new dispatch employees. This training is essential for the ability of dispatch personnel to be effective in an emergency.

By investing in proper support and training for the public safety dispatch unit, higher-ed institutions can maximize the return on their investment in security tech while creating an even safer environment for their communities.

If you would like more information or would like to assess your campus security program, we can help. Contact Fran Mozgai, CPP, Director – Physical Security Services, to discuss the best approaches to increase your security program’s effectiveness.


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