In 2017, when Hurricane Irma was threatening Tallahassee, Florida State University’s Emergency Management team knew that providing accurate, timely, and effective communication to prepare their campus community was critical. Emergency management personnel, such as FSU’s Emergency Management Coordinator Matt Lewis, were looking to bridge the communication gap between real-time updates on social media and the limited resources a static website could provide.
As the hurricane intensified and a direct hit to FSU seemed imminent, the campus community braced for impact and were looking for answers. Students, faculty, staff, parents, and other community members found them buzzing in their pocket on the SeminoleSAFE mobile app.
“We were looking for something to fill the gaps between social media… the biggest piece was that we could push updates in real-time. AppArmor was the only company that did that.”
Irma made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane with the potential to cause devastation and cascading emergencies across campus. With a student population of over 30,000 undergraduates, along with several thousand graduate students, faculty, and staff at risk, Matt Lewis and the rest of FSU Emergency Management needed to reach people quickly with hurricane updates.
The risks of rumors spreading on social media, influx of non-emergency incidents clogging 911 lines, and missed opportunities for hurricane preparedness education were high. Worried parents were expected to overwhelm campus offices with emails and calls looking for information and support for their children. And, as thousands of campus community members were from outside of Florida, it was crucial to promote hurricane preparedness and education to those that did not have prior experience with this type of hazard.
Communicating ahead of a storm, whether a winter squall or hurricane storm surge, is always challenging. There are many avenues available to communicate with stakeholders in the higher education environment and the “toolbox” of available media platforms seems increasingly vast.
University public safety personnel often have to get creative when crafting their messages and think purposefully about the tools they use to engage – both when storms are threatening and during “blue sky” times. The problem FSU realized, during this incident and others, is most traditional channels are too slow to be updated and involve too much red tape to be considered effective for emergency management.
Though the hurricane shifted east and all but missed FSU’s campus in Tallahassee, the Emergency Management Team learned some valuable lessons about their communications and the tools that are most effective in the higher education environment.
FSU’s SeminoleSAFE mobile app, developed by AppArmor, was born in 2016. During Irma, FSU created a specific ‘Tropical Storms & Hurricanes’ button and pushed real-time updates directly to the app.
“The number one thing I love about AppArmor is their customer service. I can call [them] any time of day and I know that they’ll help me out...”
Though the University’s outreach strategy during Irma focused totally on whole campus readiness, the app was used well before September 2017. “We have a bunch of buttons in the app, from ‘Emergency Procedures’ to ‘Game Day Guides’ – if you can think of it, it’s in there.,” Matt Lewis describes
Other features of the SeminoleSAFE app are listed below:
- FSU Alert integrates with FSU’s mass notification system, allowing emergency management personnel to send push notifications in addition to other messaging options provided. Push notifications are extremely effective in that they reach all end users in 1-5 seconds, travel over WiFi and Cell networks, and drive end users into the app. This keeps emergency communication clear and consistent across channels within minimal duplicated effort and additional redundancy.
- Hazard-Specific Response Guides feature information on everything from tornadoes to hazardous materials, how to get help, and more.
- Game Day Guides feature traffic information, the latest sporting event updates from officials, first aid support, suspicious activity reporting, as well as pre-event guidance on everything from ATM locations to items appropriate to bring to the stadium.
- Driving Directions & Maps help visitors and students, alike, navigate the area to find parking or athletic/recreational venues.
- Weather Info can also be found on the app from on-campus weather monitoring equipment and that of the National Weather Service; the app features radar, reports, and forecasts for the immediate and surrounding areas.
- Chat, Reporting, and Help features allow two-way communication between app users and officials such as FSU Police or other first responders to report non-emergency incidents like downed tree limbs or blocked roads. Users can ask questions without tying up phone lines or dialing 911 unnecessarily.
- Other Features and flexible functionality allow FSU to add buttons, guides, and features instantly and without the need to submit a change request to the IT department or be limited in formatting styles; all changes can be made in real-time via the AppArmor dashboard. FSU uses these features to highlight frequently asked questions, dispel rumors, run giveaways/promotions, and educate their community.
“We’ve received a lot less phone calls because we took the top ten most-asked questions during hurricane season and posted them in the app. A lot of those questions that parents ask are in the app – so we send them there.”
The SeminoleSAFE app hasn’t just been a hit with students, faculty, and staff; parents, previously excluded from alerts, can now access the same real-time information as those individuals on-campus even if they are thousands of miles away. FSU Emergency Management can send out real-time push notifications for all app users, parents included, to address emergency incidents, rumors, and non-emergency situations on campus. These messages can be received globally.
This affords emergency management personnel more time to address the actual problems, instead of losing time repeating messages across separate platforms.
FSU continues to explore new ways of engaging the entire campus with safety promotions and other unique outreach ideas fostered by their mobile app. SeminoleSAFE’s real-time notification function may be used in future emergency drills on the campus and Florida State University community members should look forward to the release of new features and resource updates.
The success of this mobile safety movement is obvious. With a near 25% increase of users from Hurricane Irma alone, FSU is able to reach more and more of the campus community with every incident, planned event, or training/exercise.
According to Matt Lewis, “AppArmor has filled a lot of gaps that we’ve always had.”
The results speak for themselves. Following the growth experienced during Hurricane Irma, FSU’s mobile app has now been downloaded over 15,000 times – meaning almost 50% of their entire campus community has this powerful resource in their pocket!
Florida State University has observed the following benefits from engaging with their campus community on the SeminoleSAFE mobile app before/during Hurricane Irma:
- An additional, powerful and unlimited mass notification alerting mechanism (push alerts that do not rely on traditional SMS text messaging)
- 25% increase in SeminoleSAFE app usership since Hurricane Irma (3,500 downloads that week, alone). As of 2020 this is well over 23,000 users.
- Real-time mobile app updates to supplement static webpage content
- Little-to-no training necessary to update app
- Increased community engagement during “blue sky” or pre-disaster times
To Matt, the biggest benefit is clear: “A more tight-knit community with the students and faculty. I’ve noticed that.”