Get the Message

WCU is making huge strides in emergency notification

By RANDALL HOLCOMBE

Redundancy is not usually considered a good thing, but when it comes to emergency notification, the more methods available for sending out an alert to the public, the better, even if an individual receives the same message several times, says Tammi Hudson, Western Carolina’s emergency manager. When a situation occurs at WCU that presents a danger to the public, all those involved in public safety on campus want to have at their disposal a toolbox that contains numerous types of notification systems, Hudson said. The idea is to get the message out to the campus community by several methods, in case an individual system does not work as it should, and to improve the potential for reaching individuals no matter where they are or what they are doing. Toward those goals, over the past year, Hudson has been overseeing massive leaps in the university’s ability to communicate with its population of students, faculty, staff and visitors during emergency situations, with the greatest improvement in that capability scheduled to happen this fall.

The 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech that resulted in the deaths of 33 people played out live on television and computer screens all across the country to an unprecedented degree, said Hudson, who was then working as physical security and emergency operations center manager at the Indianapolis International Airport. “Because it was on a college campus and young people were involved, I think it deeply affected people,” she said. Virginia Tech was a wake-up call for colleges and universities across the country “to take notice and realize that bad things can happen on a college campus,” she said. One of the issues highlighted by the tragedy was the need for efficient ways to communicate with a campus community during an emergency situation. Another outcome of the Virginia Tech shooting was a directive from University of North Carolina General Administration that each UNC campus should have an individual working as emergency manager, and Hudson became WCU’s first emergency manager in March 2009, taking on duties that had been shared by several individuals and offices on campus.

WCU Alert System

Since Hudson’s arrival at WCU, several situations have warranted alerting the campus community through its emergency notification systems. One that stands out was a robbery on a Wednesday in December 2011 at the State Employees Credit Union, located across N.C. Highway 107 from the east campus in Cullowhee. The search for the armed suspect resulted in WCU police issuing a “timely warning” for the campus a few minutes after confirmation of the robbery, and then a campuswide emergency notification with a “shelter-in-place” advisory that was in effect for just more than two hours as law enforcement authorities searched for the suspect. The suspect was eventually arrested off campus, but investigators determined that he had been on campus, unarmed, before the arrest took place. During that incident, a variety of emergency notification systems were used to communicate with the campus community, including WCU email; the PIER/Cat Tracker system that sends out text messages, voice calls and email to registered individuals; the campus siren system; and the WCU home page and emergency information page on the Internet. The notification systems worked well overall, Hudson said, but sending out each message required the involvement of seven individuals across campus.

That will change this fall, Hudson said, as the new Alertus desktop notification system goes online, providing a single interface that will make it possible for one individual to simultaneously send out an emergency message through all of WCU’s campus notification systems in a few easy steps. Ernie Hudson, WCU police chief, calls the upgrade “a real coup” that will allow public safety telecommunicators (formerly known as “dispatchers”) to focus more of their attention on the response during emergency situations. The telecommunicators at WCU’s Emergency Communications Center, supervised by Tammi Hudson, are at the focal point during those instances, communicating with the public, police officers and other emergency responders, and often are the individuals who send out the first alerts to campus, Ernie Hudson said. During the December 2011 shelter-in-place situation, more than 200 telephone calls from the public were received at the Emergency Communications Center in an hour-and-a-half, and the single interface for public notification will be a big advantage during tense situations, he said.

In addition to providing “one button” use for all the campus notification systems, the Alertus system adds a new and efficient notification tool to WCU’s toolbox, Tammi Hudson said. The system is being provided to the university free of charge through an Alertus grant program, with WCU having to provide only hardware space. WCU’s Division of Information Technology began the process of remotely pushing out Alertus software to faculty, staff and classroom computers during the spring, and tests of the system have been going on through the spring and summer. The software communicates with a server located in WCU’s Forsyth Building, and when an alert is sent out, it will take the form of a full-screen message that will display on the computer user’s monitor. Students’ personal computers may be added to the Alertus system in the future, Tammi Hudson said.

Neil Calvert, support analyst in WCU’s IT division, and his colleagues in IT have played an integral role in Alertus system implementation, said Hudson, calling the project “a great example of collaboration and teamwork.” Calvert reported that as of mid-June more than 2,100 faculty, staff and classroom instructor computers had received the new software, and the process will be continuous to install the software as new computers are booted up on campus. A big test of the system, involving faculty and staff computers, was planned for Aug. 2. Calvert said he and his IT colleagues have been pleased to assist in implementing the alert system. “IT staff members work on projects that are important to WCU all the time, but this one is especially significant,” he said.

Yet another upgrade in WCU’s emergency notification efforts occurred in early summer, when university officials contracted with RAVE Mobile Safety to provide texting, voice call and email service during emergencies. The PIER/Cat Tracker system will be retained for a time to provide a backup website in emergency situations, Tammi Hudson said. RAVE also will interface with Alertus and the rest of WCU’s emergency notification systems.

The improvements being made with WCU’s emergency notification systems is not just a passing fancy, said Robert Edwards ’77, vice chancellor for administration and finance. Maintenance and improvement in the systems is called for in the university’s strategic plan. “Emergency preparedness and safety of our students, faculty, staff and visitors is at the forefront of our mission,” Edwards said.

Tammi Hudson said improvements being made on campus in the area of emergency notification would not have happened without the ongoing support of Edwards, Chancellor David O. Belcher and the university’s executive council. Other ideas being discussed for improving the systems include disseminating messages through digital signage and campus cable television, she said. “Managing our notification systems is a constant process of evaluation and training, and also looking at new technologies to find those that are a good fit for our campus. We have a very safe campus community and environment, but bad things can happen in great places. You have to be prepared,” she said.