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Lessons learned about emergency alerts

In 2007, a Virginia Tech student opened fire on classmates killing 32 people and injuring 17 more. Some of the most important lessons learned in the aftermath of this tragedy centered on emergency communication. According to a senior Virginia Tech official, what important step does the U need to take in emergency preparedness?

In 2007, a student of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University opened fire on classmates killing 32 people and injuring 17 more. Notifying faculty, staff and students of the dangerous situation was the top priority for Larry Hinker, associate vice president of university relations at Virginia Tech.

Last year, Hinker spoke to U officials about how his office handled the tragedy and emphasized the importance of an effective emergency notification system for the University of Utah. In light of a recent campaign to increase enrollment in the University of Utah’s text alert system Hincker addressed this issue for us once again:

This Week: How was your campus community notified and updated of the shooting in 2007?
Hincker: In April of 2007 we had a decent but primitive email blast system and a rather clunky phone mail blast to all campus phones. The email had capacity to reach all 35,000-plus addresses in 5-10 minutes. The phone mail distribution was so primitive that I used it only once on the morning of April 16 because it took too much time to execute. We sent an email blast (and partial phone mail) to campus about 80 minutes after the first notification of the dorm shootings. Once notified of the mass shootings in the academic building at 9:45 a.m., we issued another blast email. It was all over by 10 a.m.

We pulled down the university home page and posted updated information, essentially using a blog effect. We continued to issue emails or video statements from our press conferences, but everything was posted and archived to the site.

This Week: So a lot probably changed after this tragedy in terms of emergency alerts?
Hincker: Emergency Notification Systems, text alerts, etc. generally didn’t exist in 2007. Indeed, subsequent to our tragedy an entire sub-industry was formed. While Virginia Tech-like experiences are thankfully rare, the need for protocols and processes to quickly respond to even simple events has become the norm. The instantaneous and ubiquitous nature of modern electronic communications demands multi-layered response and capability, both during and after a crisis event. No one channel will serve everyone equally. Any Emergency Notification System ought to have multiple distribution channels such as blast email, ability to reach mobile devises with text or phone messages (normally through an outside service) campus signage and social media.

During an extended emergency — one that requires multiple alerts — it’s possible that one or more distribution channels will degrade.  For example, cell phone systems get clogged and phone or text alerts can be delayed.  That is why we have multiple ways to reach our community.

We built our own proprietary web portal that integrated text and phone mail capabilities with our own blast email, computer desktop alerts, classroom digital signs (500 plus) and a homepage alert. We were the first to integrate all these channels from a single web portal with simultaneous distribution.

This Week: When you visited our campus last year, you noted the importance of enrollment in text message notification. What is your sign-up rate at Virginia Tech?
Hincker: We get about 95 percent sign-up rate for students and 75 percent for faculty and staff. There is no opt-out for the email blast. We have all email addresses and everyone gets those messages. Others are a form of opt-out. Students cannot register for classes until they pass through the alert screen. They can either sign up for text/phone mail alerts, or opt-out.

This Week: And that is what we now have here at the U. What types of emergencies are deemed important enough for this kind of alert at Virginia Tech?
Hincker: Early on we understood we would use the alerts only for serious emergencies. We heard stories from other campuses where the community became inured to alerts. We ultimately wrote policy that the deciding factor is what we need YOU to do. If we want the community to take action (stay put, evacuate, seek shelter), we would send an alert.

Every crisis has its own life and characteristics. Campuses have different cultures and expectations. Technical capabilities differ. Sadly, none of this is fun or even interesting, and few of us naturally gravitate to emergency planning.

This Week: True. Thanks for giving us another opportunity to consider it today.

The University of Utah wants to be able to reach all faculty, staff and students quickly in the event of a serious campus emergency. That is why everyone on campus is being asked to register his or her cell phone number in the University of Utah’s text alert system.

If they have not submitted a cell phone number already, employees will be prompted to do so as they log into the Campus Information System (CIS). It will only be used for notifying employees of time-sensitive emergencies.

Campus alerts are sent using a combination of email and text messages. However, opting out of receiving these messages via text means one might not receive critical safety information in a timely manner. More about campus alerts, including a list of frequently asked questions, can be found at