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Tornadoes test new campus alert communications system

Within a week of announcing the revised emergency communications plan, the University had a chance to put it to the test.

On Sept. 1, the campus community received information from Director of Public Safety Jeff McCracken about when and how people would be contacted about a campus safety issue. The Office of New Student and Carolina Parent Programs also sent the information to parents registered on its listserv.

Alert Carolina

The revised plan uses three types of alerts – emergency warning, timely warning and informational message.

These changes came as a result of Chancellor Holden Thorp’s request last April for a review of the plans to notify the campus during an emergency and draw from a process developed at Virginia Tech. The plan also includes feedback from student leaders and senior administrators.

On Sept. 6, as the campus returned from the Labor Day weekend, much of North Carolina, including Orange County, remained under a tornado watch throughout the day as the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee traveled up the East Coast.

Twice, the watch turned to warnings issued by the National Weather Service for Orange County. And twice, the University sounded the emergency sirens to alert people to seek shelter immediately, part of the criteria for issuing an emergency warning.

Immediately following the sirens, the University sent text messages to registered cell phones and posted updates on Alert Carolina and the UNC homepage, all part of an emergency warning.

Each safety alert is based on specific criteria.

Emergency warning is for a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to health or safety. Scenarios are an armed and dangerous person, a chemical hazard, a tornado warning issued for Orange County or another significant general threat to safety.

The University will sound the sirens and send text messages to registered cell phones immediately after a threat is confirmed.

Timely warning is a notification about certain crimes covered under the Clery Act ( when the information is available so people can protect themselves or their property from similar crimes. Timely warnings also cover a tornado watch issued for Orange County. No immediate action is necessary but officials want people to exercise caution.

The sirens will not sound. The University will send a text message to registered cell phones and update Alert Carolina and the UNC homepage if there is a continuing danger to the campus AND issuing the timely warning will not compromise law enforcement efforts to address the crime.

Informational message is for a less-urgent situation that involves health or safety issues, but does not pose an immediate threat. Examples include a situation in which a perpetrator in a violent crime has been arrested or is no longer on campus or there is a major natural gas leak that doesn’t warrant evacuation.

The University will send an email and post information on the Alert Carolina website.  (Last week, the University sent informational messages about incidents occurring off campus; they are posted on

During the tornado scare, the sirens were sounded and text messages were sent successfully. It was the first time the sirens had been activated for a real event, not just a test.

Because the timing coincided with the class change schedule, that caused confusion for some faculty and students whether people should move to their next class. Many students were walking through Polk Place while the emergency warning was in effect.

A further complication was that Chapel Hill Transit continued to operate normally. And some people who had moved to the lowest parts of buildings could not hear siren updates, including the “all clear” signal, or check for new text messages because of cell phone service breaks.

First and foremost, University officials said, students, faculty and staff should treat any siren activation as a significant, potentially life-threatening emergency. Regardless of class or office schedules, the priority should be to go inside or take cover immediately – and in the case of a tornado warning, to seek shelter immediately or move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building.

Following any safety-related event or siren test, University officials review issues that arise and ways to improve communications. McCracken started to lead that process on the day of the tornado warnings. Senior administrators have already started tackling follow-up issues including clarifying classroom procedures during an emergency.

Detailed information about new communications concerning safety alerts is posted on To watch a video with McCracken explaining the new protocols, see

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September 14, 2011

Sept. 14 Gazette as a PDF
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September 14 issue as a PDF


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* *Four junior faculty members recognized for artistic, scholarly achievements with Hettleman Prizes

* *Tornadoes test new campus alert communications system

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