Campus Security, Examined

Comprehensive survey of colleges' preparedness suggests increasing attention to safety concerns -- but gaps in campus communication and collaboration with local authorities.
August 10, 2009

Most colleges have campuswide emergency plans that meet minimum standards set by national safety groups, according to a new survey -- which also shows several key areas of potential vulnerability.

The National Campus Safety and Security Project survey, the first major product of a multi-association initiative begun last year and financed by the Lilly Endowment, aims to establish a baseline to which future advances (or backslides) in emergency planning by colleges and universities can be compared. The survey examines a wide range of topics, including not just the existence and breadth of emergency plans but also issues involving organizational structure and budgeting for campus safety and security.

The overall picture, four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and two years after the high-profile shootings at Virginia Tech, is a generally positive one, with 85 percent of the 342 colleges that responded having developed emergency preparedness plans that meet the standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, and 40 percent of the rest in the process of developing plans. Four-year private colleges were least likely to have developed such plans (81 percent), while four-year publics (at 90 percent) were most likely.

(One caveat to this and other findings: The response rate to the survey -- just 16 percent of institutions approached -- leads the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the other groups responsible for the study to say that the results "should be considered more exploratory than definitive.")

More than 90 percent of the emergency plans deal with acts of violence and natural and man-made disasters, while 76 percent cover pandemics. Barely half of the plans, though, lay out plans for dealing with cyber disruptions.

Written communication. Colleges reported using a variety of means for sharing their full campus emergency plans with employees and students. Eighty-seven percent disseminated their emergency plans on paper, while about half used their campus Web sites and about a third used an Intranet. (Respondents could choose multiple answers.) This survey adds an interesting twist to a study released last week that, based on a review of colleges' Web sites, concluded that many institutions' emergency preparedness plans lack some of the key elements seen as necessary to prepare, prevent, respond and recover from "mass casualty events."

Asked what strategies they use to communicate with staff members and students about preventive measures and how to respond to emergencies, 73 percent of colleges cited their Web sites, about two thirds said annual faculty and student orientations, and about half said their student handbooks.

Fifty-seven percent said they had posted instructions on what to do in case of emergencies in all residence halls, and 55 percent said all labs had such notices. But warnings were less likely in other campus settings, such as dining halls, student unions, administrative buildings, and athletic venues.

Infrastructure. Nearly half of all campuses said they used electronic card systems for building access in all or most of their dormitories (the figure is nearly two-thirds when two-year colleges, which by and large do not have residence halls, are excluded). But the vast majority of other types of campus facilities did not use perimeter or interior access cards, the survey found.

Centrally monitored fire alarms are common, with vast majorities of campuses reporting that most of their facilities were included in such central alarm systems.

And while virtually all respondents said that they used security cameras, relatively few -- between a fifth and a quarter -- said they had external cameras to monitor security in all or most of their residence and dining halls, student unions, libraries or other buildings. About half of campuses reported little or no use of internal security campuses in student and administrative facilities.

Electronic communications. Nearly 60 percent of campuses reported that they had developed "templates" for communicating with students and staff in emergencies, while 28 percent said they were developing such systems. Those that had or were developing such systems said they were focusing on the following technologies for emergency notifications:

Technology % of campuses
E-mail 95.3%
Web Page 87.4
Text/Instant Messaging 76.9
LAN Line Messaging/Voicemail 70.8
Telephone Trees 60.8
Public Address System 42.1
Pole Mounted Speakers/Sirens 36.8
Message Board/Visual Notification 35.4
Other 25.4

The survey suggested a few other areas of concern in the eyes of the report's authors. Among them:

  • Only about 30 percent of campuses said they had "business continuity plans" to ensure that they could operate without serious disruption in the wake of an emergency, though 23 percent said they had such plans for parts of campus and another 28 percent said they were developing campuswide plans.
  • The institutions that are least likely to have their own armed police forces (independent four-year and public two-year colleges) were also less likely to have "mutual aid agreements" -- arrangements with local law enforcement or other agencies to share resources in case of emergency. While 95 percent of public four-year colleges had such agreements, just 64.2 percent of private four-year and 68.3 percent of public two-year institutions did.

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