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Vice President discusses emergency communications systems

- October 29, 2007

In response to the tragedy at Virginia Tech this past spring, a committee was established to develop the University’s emergency communications plan. Vice President Barry Feldman, the University’s chief operating officer who convened the committee, discussed the University’s emergency communications systems recently with Advance editor Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu.

Q How is the University approaching the potential need to communicate with faculty, staff, and students in the event of a crisis?

A We established a committee with representatives from Storrs, the regional campuses, the Health Center, and the Law School, and we have been meeting weekly since May.

We’ve developed an emergency communications plan for contacting students, staff, and faculty in the event of an emergency. If that should happen, our plan would be to use a variety of communication methods to let people know of the event and what to do next.

Let me take this opportunity to remind everyone that while a strong communications strategy can mitigate the potential for harm, it cannot completely eliminate risk.

Q What sorts of situations are being considered as emergencies?

A We’re defining an emergency as a life and death situation – an event where people’s lives are in danger.

Q What mechanisms have been put in place so far?

A We decided to invest not in one but in a variety of communications systems. We’ve purchased and installed nine public address sirens throughout the Storrs campus, one at the Depot campus, and one each at the Greater Hartford campus and the Law School.

We’re also working with the blue phones, text messaging, e-mail, voice mail, and web banner activation. And there’s a new web site: http://alert.uconn.edu.

We determined that the best way to notify people is to incorporate redundancy into the system, to be as safe as we can. Word of mouth will play a big role, too. In addition to the technology we’re using, old-fashioned word of mouth is going to be an important factor in spreading the information too.

Q Which of the systems have been tested and what was learned from the tests?

A We tested the text messaging system and the blue phones to determine how well they perform. We’re also going to test the sirens in the next few weeks.

The test of the blue phones earlier this semester was successful. There are 220 of these phones. All but seven functioned in the test, and all of those have now been repaired.

The phones not only transmit an audible message, they provide a visual cue – a light flashes and that tells you there’s an emergency event.

We found that text messaging performed slower than we anticipated. The University has nearly 16,000 students, staff, and faculty who’ve registered their cell phones – perhaps one of the highest percentages of any university. We intended to send a message in a relatively brief time, but our expectations so far have been greater than the technology’s ability to perform.

University Information Technology Services is now working with the vendor, Reverse 911, to reduce the time it takes sending it. We’ll test again in a couple of weeks.

Text messaging was designed for one-to-one communication. It wasn’t intended for instant mass communication. The issue is one of capacity. When the message arrives at the gateways for text messaging, it might experience delays, especially if there’s a high volume of people using their cell phones at that time.

Another limitation is that the message has to be very brief – 160 characters maximum – so we’re limited in what we can say in the message. We’re also working to make the alert.uconn.edu site mobile device-accessible, so people can call up the site instantly on a BlackBerry or web-enabled cell phone.

We ask faculty, staff, and students to participate in the continuing tests and offer feedback. We expect that when a system is tested for the first time, it may not operate at optimum effectiveness.

The key is to identify the problems and work to fix them quickly. We may test the various systems a number of times before we’re fully satisfied.

Barry Feldman, vice president and chief operating officer, in his office at Gulley Hall.
Barry Feldman, vice president and chief operating officer, in his office at Gulley Hall.
File photo by Peter Morenus

Q What remains to be done?

A There is going to be an emergency banner that automatically appears on every University web site that uses the University’s standard web template, when an emergency occurs. We plan to have this functioning by mid-November.

We’re also investigating adding all classroom telephones to the blue phone system, so the same message being broadcast on the blue phones will be heard in the classrooms.

We’re still considering message boards, but given the size of the campus, we recognize that a centralized location may not be the most effective way to communicate.

Q Who will decide whether an emergency communication will be sent out?

A The University’s public safety department will determine the extent and severity of a situation and decide whether to activate the systems.

Q Will different types of emergency trigger different communication mechanisms?

A In the most extreme situation, we will activate everything, but some situations might require us to use only some of our communications options.

Q How will the message be conveyed to outlying buildings, such as those at Horsebarn Hill or the Depot Campus?

A The Depot Campus has a siren, and we expect the sound from the Storrs campus will carry to Horsebarn Hill. We’ll confirm the system’s range when we test the sirens. Of course, the electronic communications can be used at all University locations.

Q How will people who might be on their way to campus be contacted?

A Text messaging is one way. Also, if we want people to stay away from campus, we would contact the media – radio and TV.

Q Will a message be sent locally to the Town of Mansfield, E.O. Smith High School, and area businesses?

A We expect the sirens will be heard in the local community, but if there is danger to the surrounding area, we will also contact town officials.

Q What will the message tell people to do?

A It will notify them that there is an emergency situation and recommend that they check the alert.uconn.edu web site for more information. It may also identify certain places to avoid.

Q After the initial emergency message, how frequently will the University issue updates, and how?

A Updates will be through the web – the alert.uconn.edu site – as often as necessary.

Q Will there be training in what to do in the event of an emergency?

A Yes. Over time, we hope to do exercises that simulate a major event happening. But first we need to make sure all the systems we’ve put in place are operable.

Q How will the University keep the system up to date?

A One thing is for people to update their cell phone number if there’s a change. They can do that any time on the web at http://alert.uconn.edu. We will send out reminders periodically and perhaps fold that into the directory update process too.

The emergency communications committee will continue to meet, to help the University stay abreast of new technologies.

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