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Area universities rely on technology to alert students, staff in emergencies

 

Mississippi University for Women Director of Community Living Sirena Parker and Assistant Director of Information Technology Services Lisa McDaniel show off the W Alert emergency response system Wednesday afternoon.

Mississippi University for Women Director of Community Living Sirena Parker and Assistant Director of Information Technology Services Lisa McDaniel show off the W Alert emergency response system Wednesday afternoon. Photo by: Kelly Tippett/Dispatch Staff

 

Carmen K. Sisson & Slim Smith, Dispatch Correspondent

 

 

MUW: W Alert 

 

Carmen K. Sisson 

 

 

 

The power of Mississippi University for Women's campus alert system became clear to President Dr. Jim Borsig when he saw a text message tapped out on an iPad and sent as a test alert to more than 3,000 students, faculty and staff -- all within a matter of seconds.  

 

Although MUW has had an automated alert system for the past four or five years, the new W Alert went live in January and takes emergency notifications to a more advanced level, allowing greater customization.  

 

Students are automatically opted into the free notification system when they enroll, Borsig said, but they can choose whether they want to receive email, text or telephone voice messages -- or all three.  

 

Borsig isn't necessarily the person who makes the decision to send out an alert. Campus police contact an authorized "on call" person to issue the alert, freeing the police to respond to the situation while the alert is issued and an instant command center is established. 

 

"There's no consultation up and down the chain of command," Borsig explained Wednesday. "We don't want to waste the time that would take. The person who's got the boots on the ground is the person who needs to be able to make the call." 

 

The W Alert system, which is provided by California-based Blackboard Connect Inc., has already been used once this semester during severe weather.  

 

A number of pre-programmed messages are built into the web-based alert system, but customized messages are possible as well. The system has been in the works for at least a year and a half and is still being "tweaked," Borsig noted.  

 

"I think our goal on this campus is to continue to get smart about how we manage any kind of emergency on campus, to make sure we keep everyone on campus safe," he said.  

 

In addition to the W Alert, the university also has four directional sirens and two voice sirens, which are located between Taylor and Keirn Halls and near Reneau Hall, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Serenade Drive.  

 

The siren portion of the system is controlled by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency during inclement weather, and the voice siren is activated by the university for other emergency situations.  

 

The two new sirens cost $48,000, which was paid for with a grant. Borsig said he was not sure how much the W Alert costs, but it's worth the price.  

 

"Every university in the country has a system in place like this now," Borsig said. "There was a time when warning sirens were the state of the art technology, and that's still part of the emergency plan, but this technology is used in conjunction. All of it has to work together." 

 

Redundancy is built into the system, so if one notification method fails another will take its place. The biggest benefits are the ease of use and speed of delivery, especially after hours.  

 

"That's amazing -- to know that one of these folks on call is able to fire this thing immediately off their iPhone or iPad," Borsig said. "Things don't happen between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m." 

 

Mississippi State University's Maroon Alert landed in the news recently, after being heavily utilized following a fatal shooting on campus March 24. MSU sends messages via text, telephone, email and social media, including its Twitter and Facebook pages.  

 

East Mississippi Community College has a similar emergency notification system in place -- ROARCast Alert. ROARCast provides alerts by text message, email, telephone voice message or all three services.  

 

 

 

MSU: Maroon Alert 

 

Slim Smith/Dispatch Correspondent 

 

 

 

STARKVILLE - This was a Maroon Alert like no other. 

 

At 10:27 p.m., on March 24, the following Maroon Alert went out: "Starkville Campus: Report of shooting or stabbing at Evans Hall. Perpetrator still at large." 

 

The alert through Mississippi State University's emergency notification system, commonly known as the Maroon Alert, came 33 minutes after MSU student John Sanderson was fatally shot on the MSU campus. Two subsequent Maroon Alerts, at 10:57 p.m. and 11:17 p.m., informed students, staff and faculty of other details of the tragic event, including confirmation of the shooting death and a description of the suspects. 

 

Because it was the first on-campus gunshot fatality in the school's history, much attention was focused on the performance of the Maroon Alert system. From all accounts, the notification system worked as intended, said MSU Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Bill Kibler, who serves as the incident commander of the system. 

 

"We were very pleased with the emergency response last Saturday," Kibler said. "No system, no person is perfect, but we felt, in reviewing this very unique situation, that our system performed as intended." 

 

"It was pretty impressive," said Thomas Bunch, a sophomore from Aberdeen. "I was off-campus, with a bunch of friends, when (the shooting) happened. All of the sudden, I saw 10 or 15 people pull out their phones, at the same time, and read that first Maroon Alert. Even though we weren't on campus, it was nice to know what was going on." 

 

"I saw the alert right away," said James Jarvis, a junior from Madison. "If I hadn't gotten that text message, I really don't know how long it would have taken for me to find out. It's a good system." 

 

For some, the shooting death at MSU was a reminder of the tragic events at Virginia Tech in 2007, when 34 people were killed on the campus by a deranged student. A Virginia Tech campus alert wasn't issued for more than two hours after the first shots were fired and campuses everywhere felt the ramifications of the tragedy, with many schools subsequently implementing emergency notification systems and others enhancing their existing systems. 

 

"We've used elements of what you see in our system today, for years, in many cases," Kibler said of MSU's Maroon Alert system. "But our first integrated system was implemented in 2005. Over the years, we've updated the system. Certainly, what happened at Virginia Tech was an opportunity for us to examine and enhance our system to the point that it is what you see today." 

 

Schools have had emergency notification plans for a while, but technology of recent years has greatly aided the efficiency of those systems, Kibler said. 

 

"We've actually been using text messaging for four or five years now," he explained. "The thing that has really helped make it the most effective was developing a really good relationship with a third-party provider. We have more than 10,000 phone numbers in our system right now. Having a provider that can send out that volume of texts in a matter of a few minutes is a critical part of the plan." 

 

Maroon Alerts also are issued through the university's Facebook page and its Twitter accounts, as well as through more conventional avenues, such as emails, instant messaging, television and radio notifications and, in the case of weather emergencies, the campus siren system. 

 

"We know that people get their information from a variety of sources," Kibler said. "That's why it's important to integrate all of the ways we can make notifications. Not only do people get their information from multiple sources, but each platform has its own unique advantages, as well as limitations. So it's not just one thing. You hear a lot of feedback about text messages, but it's just one way of getting the information out." 

 

The Maroon Alert system operates with a distinct protocol, developed and refined over the years, as technology emerges and circumstances change. 

 

"More than 90 percent of the alerts begin with the University Police Department dispatcher," Kibler said. 

 

The dispatcher calls a designated member of the crisis-response team, an "on-call" person, who serves on a rotating basis and is available 24-hours a day and seven days a week. The on-call member assesses the situation, based on the information provided by the dispatcher. If basic criteria for an alert have been met, the on-call person contacts the incident commander, who makes the final determination on whether to send out an alert and what sort of information the alert should include, depending on the nature of the emergency. 

 

Bunch said he finds the Maroon Alert texts especially helpful during weather emergencies, which are the most common events to prompt alerts. 

 

"I'm thinking about last April, when we had all the tornado threats," Bunch said. "We were getting text messages about tornado warnings pretty regularly and I thought that was really important. College kids don't watch the weather, so getting the texts were huge." 

 

As it does after all alerts, the crisis response team reviewed the performance of the system, in the wake of the March 24 shooting. 

 

"Every situation is different," Kibler said, "so every incident gives you a chance to learn, to look at your performance and discover what areas worked well and what could be improved on. In reviewing all that happened, we were pleased with our emergency response."

 

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.

 

 

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