The 'Expert Q&A’ series highlights the experiences of practitioners and thought-leaders in the field of Emergency Management, Communications, and Response.
Dustin Jensen is a Public Safety Manager at the West Acres Shopping Center located in Fargo, North Dakota.
Omnilert: Tell us about yourself and your organization. How did you get to where you are today?
Dustin Jensen: I am the Public Safety Manager for West Acres Shopping Center in Fargo, North Dakota. I’ve been in this position for 3 years. I have a background in emergency management as well as law enforcement through the military. I have also previously worked in business development and team management for Microsoft.
I came on board at West Acres a couple of years ago because they have an outstanding vision for public safety, emergency management, and emergency preparedness. Safety was a hat that was being worn by the property manager and they saw that it needed more attention. They needed someone to actually fulfill the role full time and luckily they chose me.
West Acres itself is a regional shopping destination. We have approximately 100 tenants and our floor staff fluctuates throughout the year and the season. We have a lot of stores, with a lot of tenant staff, and a lot of customers we are constantly trying to keep safe. Our headcount is about 650 to 700 people that are employed on the site.
My interest in public safety stemmed from my experience in law enforcement within the military. I was a proud member of the Air Force Security Forces for a number of years. It truly fits who I am to try to provide safety and security for those around me. When I separated from the military I knew I wanted to go to college, so I looked for a degree that might be related to but outside of law enforcement. I had done that and I wanted to do a little more.
Fortunately, I came across the Emergency Management program offered at North Dakota State University. I ran into that program and it floored me. I thought, “wow, this is exactly what I want to do and what I want to be.” I received my B.S.degree in Emergency Management from the NDSU four year program. It is a great program and I can’t speak more highly of how well it prepared me for my career path.
Omnilert: What is your favorite part of your job? The most challenging?
DJ: I love my job. I love working in a retail environment doing what I love with emergency management and public safety, as well as getting the opportunity to get out amongst the tenants and shopper population. I interface with them daily. I talk to the store managers, the store employees, and the people that are here shopping - it's just great. I get to pick their brains in regards to their standpoints on safety and security. They can tell us what they feel we can do better, and I also get the first hand opportunity to assure them that we are taking a proactive approach in our stance for preparedness.
The most challenging aspect of my position is getting buy in from tenants. A lot of people are understandably just really busy. Trying to push a security and safety agenda isn't always in the forefront of people's minds. They see it as something they don’t necessarily have the most time to focus on right away. Just making it easier for them and packaging things in a way that is appealing to a very wide audience is always challenging in this field. The tenants, fortunately, do see the emergency plans and procedures as positive for the most part, but when we roll out new safety agendas it’s something they have to re-learn and try to push down to their staff. That can be challenging due to high turnover in retail, so making sure everyone is familiar with safety and security and what we request is an ongoing process.
Omnilert: Tell us about your team.
DJ: I directly oversee the mall security team. I interact with their leadership to develop policies and procedures that are essential to the mall’s ability to respond to emergency situations.
We also have an Emergency Operations Team which comes together to provide input on what the different core functions would be responsible for in different emergencies. This team is composed of Mall Management, Operation, Security, Media and Guest Services. I also engage very heavily with our Federal, State and Local first responder communities to get their buy in and their eyes on our policies and procedures.
Omnilert: How are critical and emergency communications currently handled?
DJ: Our emergency notification function is paramount. Depending on the severity of the incident, we call 911 for outside agency awareness and response, but our immediate next steps include getting emergency notification messages sent out to tenants and staff so that they can make an informed response decision. Within the Omnilert system we have different groups set up, to include a group that will reach all 700 individuals in the system. We also have groups set up for each emergency function i.e. operations, security, media, as well as for mall management. We also frequently utilize uConference with Omnilert and that’s been a great tool for us. If we have to get the entire management group on a call we can easily do so. The depth of the Omnilert system is just great; it really allows us to fulfill our communication needs.
Omnilert: What prompted you and your team to implement a communications solution?
DJ: The initial thoughts on emergency communications came before my time. A couple of years before I started with West Acres there were some incidents in the mall or in the area. The teams involved in those responses were left wanting a method to get the emergency message to a wider audience. They didn’t have a way to do it other than to use the mall’s public address system - which isn't inside the stores so we were getting the message out to the general population but the tenants were easily missing the messages. With that in mind, the management team brought on an emergency notification system solution they thought was the latest and greatest in emergency notifications which was similar to Omnilert in that it allowed us to send emergency messages to tenant phones. After utilizing it for about a year and a half, it was noticed that it had some serious flaws, namely an alarming delay in the delivery of the emergency messages. We would initiate the message, and then 5, 10, 15 minutes would go by before messages would be received. From a mall standpoint, with the types of quick-onset emergencies we potentially face, this delay was not acceptable. So, after some considerable research into alternative ENS solutions we decided on Omnilert. After utilizing their services for almost two years, we have not been disappointed. We send that message and within 5 seconds the phones are ringing throughout the mall. We know people are getting the message and they are getting it in a timely fashion.
Omnilert: How do you prepare for an emergency?
DJ: On a regular basis, we have large and small team meetings where we review the mall emergency operations plans and procedures. In these meetings we also periodically conduct tabletop exercises to test the staff knowledge on a variety of emergency response topics. I also go out and about from time to time and talk about procedures on a one on one basis with the staff. They are very comfortable bringing up their opinions so if they feel something isn't right or have suggestions for a better way to do something they come to me with their concerns. We have very fluid two-way communications. It’s not just policy being driven from the top and being blindly followed. I like that the people are actually thinking about the policies and engaging with them.
In regards to the mall tenants and staff, we conduct monthly safety drills that have a coordinated lock down function to them. During these monthly drills we take the opportunity to test our messaging functions, so we utilize our PA system and Omnilert to push out real-time exercise information to staff, tenants, and customers. During the drills tenants are requested to secure their gates and get out of view. Tenants are encouraged to engage with shoppers who may be in or near their stores by either having them step into their stores or by simply discussing with them how they could respond to an emergency. Also during these drills we walk around and monitor which tenants are, or are not, participating in the drills. After the fact, we try to go around and touch base with the tenants on participation and conduct informal quizzes on emergency response topics. It helps me gauge stores in respect to their levels of involvement as well as their understanding of procedures. In the two and a half years which we have been conducting these drills, we have been very pleased to have around an 80-85 percent participation level from the tenants, which tells us what we are doing is well received and not losing its importance.
Internally, we conduct testing of the Omnilert system, as well. Our Guest Services staff utilize the Omnilert system every week and send a canned message to their leadership. This keeps everyone at the Guest Services desk (who realistically would bear the primary responsibility to send initial emergency messages) current on how to get into and operate the system. Our Mall Office, Management and Operations teams also conduct weekly Omnilert drills in the same fashion.
Omnilert: What advice would you give similar organizations regarding emergency and critical communications?
DJ: Communication is paramount. I am hard-pressed to see an emergency situation where communication isn’t one of the most vital parts to an emergency response. Having the ability to send out the messages to as many of the people who could be affected, and doing so quickly, is paramount. Also, having the depth of the different methods is important. Just having a primary method of sending out messages and thinking that is sufficient and that you are reaching everyone you need to is not the way to go. Having the ability to send to public address systems, telephones, cell phones, desktops - having multiple layers to your ENS is essential to make sure you cover as many bases as possible.
For more peer insights on emergency notifications, communications, and planning, download the electronic version of the latest edition of Critical Mass Magazine - The Journal of Omnilert.