Photo courtesy of the University of Cincinnati.
UC’s Department of Public Safety relies on innovative technology solutions to create comprehensive campus safety strategy
Crisis management, mass communication, and student safety are among the highest priorities for those involved in higher education risk management and campus security. University public safety departments are tasked with protecting a highly transient and technology-savvy population. Urban-based campuses have the additional challenge of accounting for the heterogeneous, and often unpredictable, built-environment that surrounds them. A comprehensive emergency management plan is necessary for university safety officials to properly respond to all of these externalities.
The Department of Public Safety at the University of Cincinnati has invested in numerous innovative safety solutions to ensure the protection for all those on campus, honoring a commitment to providing a safe environment for students, faculty, staff, and visitors.
UC Public Safety is segmented into three branches: police, fire safety, and security systems. Together, these departments are integrating technology solutions into their existing campus security procedures to create a safe environment for more than 40,000 students across UC’s Uptown and regional campuses.
Smartphone App Puts Security in the Hands of UC Students
Last August, UC’s Department of Public Safety launched Rave Guardian, a personal safety app that connects students and staff members with one another and to campus safety personnel. Renamed Bearcat Guardian to align with the university’s famous mascot, the app hosts a number of features and reporting functions that connect individuals directly to UC’s security resources. The app allows users to discreetly submit 2-way tips to report suspicious behavior, potential problems, or other hazards. Depending on the emergency, direct dial to UC’s security operations team or local 9-1-1 can help initiate emergency procedures quickly, without a complicated user experience.
What UC students are finding most important about the safety app is the Guardian and Safety Timer features. Bearcat Guardian’s Safety Timer provides users a virtual escort to keep them safe and connected to campus security. Users can program their Safety Timer to a set time and destination and the app confirms when their safe arrival. App users can select friends, colleagues, and safety officers as ‘guardians’ to receive status and location updates when their Safety Timer is active. First-year student Victoria Coy said the app makes her feel safe on UC’s campus:
“Every night, my roommate tracks me when I’m done with swim practice to make sure I get back to our dorm OK.”
Through the Bearcat Guardian app, students can directly message UC public safety, a feature that proved life-saving for one particular student back in October.
Concerned about the safety of a friend, one UC student reached out to university police by submitting a message through the anonymous tip feature of the Bearcat Guardian app. The student needed help for his friend who was threatening suicide but did not want to talk on the phone with safety officers. Erica Deese, an emergency communications dispatcher with the Department of Public Safety, was the first to receive the anonymous tip and immediately responded through the app’s two-way messaging feature. Erica was able to talk with the student and gather information necessary for responding officers to locate his friend. Thankfully, the student was recovered unharmed and was transported to Psych Emergency Services to receive the resources and support needed for a healthy recovery.
Mass Notification Solution Bridges the Communication Gap
Recognizing the challenges associated with mass communication, UC's Department of Public Safety implemented UC Alert - a mass communication platform that allows UC officials to connect with members of the community in a quick and coordinated manner. Like many universities similar in size and operation, challenges arise when notifications need to reach not only students living on-campus, but also students who live off-campus, commute, and who are enrolled in branch campuses. With recent updates to the Clery Act, universities might soon be facing greater scrutiny on their mass communication strategies.
While recent security threats such as active-shooter incidents have pushed emergency notification to the forefront of higher education risk management, mass communication for non-threatening emergencies is often overlooked. UC public safety officials have found success in the Rave Alert platform, the provider for their campus-wide UC safety notification system, which allows the administration to update students and staff on weather emergencies and school closures. School administrators at UC recognized that while it was important that incident management procedures included a coordinated response to life-threatening emergencies, communication surrounding severe weather and updates to campus-wide events would be a more frequent notification.
Increasing Visibility on Campus Becomes a Top Priority
UC public safety officials know their visibility on campus can shape overall perceptions of student safety. To address this, increased visibility and transparency has been a focus for the Department of Public Safety. In order for students and faculty to trust safety officials and feel safe on campus, they first need to engage with them… and not just during campus emergencies. While some of these initiatives may not be applicable to every higher education institution they can certainly act as a starting point for university safety officials looking to increase visibility on their own campuses.
One of UC’s initiatives is called NightRide. This program provides safe, on-demand transportation for students, staff, and faculty within one mile of UC’s main campus. NightRide’s 11 vans operate from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day. UC Public Safety later launched an extension of the program to expand the reach of the safety service to encompass more students. NightRide Shuttle operates on the south side of UC’s campus.Engagement through Social Media
One way the UC Department of Public Safety is attempting to reach their tech-savvy student body is through social media. Their strategy seems to be working - their Twitter account alone has over 4,000 followers (@UCPublicSafety). The department posts daily about how students can stay safe on campus. These posts include resources for different safety support networks, winter storm advisories, and information regarding different safety initiatives happening around campus such as Bearcat Guardian. To keep students engaged with their account, the department frequently includes more light-hearted materials. Their #BehindtheBadge campaign introduces a campus safety officer and a fun fact about them. Other student favorites are Dozer the yellow Labrador and funny memes and gifs that include campus safety tips.
What You Can Do to Become a Leader in Student Safety
To ensure that all students and staff are able to work and learn in a safe and secure space, the University of Cincinnati invested in the creation of a comprehensive safety strategy. In order to achieve this goal, the UC Department of Public Safety had to bring in key stakeholders to consider what important themes were needed in a comprehensive safety plan? Mass communication, emergency notification, accessibility of information, and visibility of safety initiatives and plans were the first to come to mind.
Apps - According to an article published in CampusSafety, apps are a good way to go when it comes to protecting a college campus. With smartphones attached to students’ hands, safety apps become mobile and allow students the ability to access safety information or communicate in a two-way conversation with university safety officials in case of an emergency. It’s important to first research how members of your campus are digesting their information and then tailor your communication strategy to those channels.
Visibility - This doesn’t necessarily mean increasing officer patrols around campus. Start a social media channel for students to follow and engage with. This creates an opportunity for you to share news and information much for frequently than a news bulletin on a departmental website might allow.
Mass notification is another tool that can increase the visibility of safety initiatives happening on your campus. While emergency notifications are crucial during life-threatening events, they can also be used for other university messages. These can include updates about severe weather storms, sporting event information, and even to send out links to psych and health services departments on campus.
You might find it beneficial to form partnerships with organizations on campus that focus on supporting student health and identity. These organizations can include your center for women’s studies, groups raising awareness about LGBTQA+ initiatives, campus religious organizations, and the university counseling center. These organizations focus on student safety - in all forms - and have high visibility across campus. Working with them can provide you a platform to promote safety initiatives as well as gain new insight into different security concerns on campus.
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