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
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
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 (www.higheredcenter.org/mandates/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
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 www.alertcarolina.unc.edu/go/doctype/1395/23891).
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 alertcarolina.unc.edu. To watch a video with
McCracken explaining the new protocols, see http://bit.ly/prIC2m.