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Behind-the-scenes on how the UW sends emergency notifications

We’ve all heard the stories of 38 minutes of panic and fear in Hawaii, the time between when a mistaken missile alert first went out and when the correction message was finally sent. In the wake of this, we took a closer look at the processes used for sending out urgent and emergency messages to the campus community, and the different systems University officials have at their disposal.

UW Alert

A couple of cop cars and a fire truck whiz by, sirens blazing. Just a few minutes later a UW Alert buzzes your phone; there’s been a hazardous materials spill on campus.

UW Alert is the official emergency notification tool for the University of Washington’s Crisis Communications Team. This team is tasked with getting the word out about any imminent danger or major disruption to the University. UW Alerts go out via SMS (text messages), email, and Twitter.

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Student emails are automatically added to the distribution list for UW Alert when students register for classes. Others, including employees, must voluntarily sign up for alerts on the UW Alert website. You must have a UW NetID to sign up, and can sign up for email alerts as well as text messages.

UW Alerts are initiated by any member of the CCT; however, the vast majority of incidents are initially reported by the UW Police Department. Immediately, UWPD notifies the rest of the Crisis Communications Team and a quick conference call begins within minutes. The person who initiated the call briefs the team on the incident and the group discusses whether an alert should go out or not. Typically alerts only go out if an incident requires action, such as avoiding a building on campus because of a hazmat spill, and then once again when the incident is over. Discussions are kept brief in the interest of getting an alert out in a timely fashion.

“It’s not just one person from UW Emergency Management or the police department sending out these messages, but an entire team of many departments and people coordinating with each other as quickly as they can to get out timely notifications to the University community,” said UW Emergency Management’s Stacie Louviere, a member of the Crisis Communications Team.

After the group determines that sending out an alert is the next appropriate action, the person who initiated the request logs in to the e2campus online alert system. That person then selects a premade template message from a drop-down menu and customizes the details for the specific incident. They then select the lists to push the message out to, and verify everything on a review page before hitting send. In addition, there is a final “Are you sure you want to send this message?” notification and review page to help avoid mistakes.

However, team members can bypass the process in the interest of timeliness.

“The University has empowered us to send out an urgent message if something needs immediate attention,”’ said UW-IT’s Andy Ward, another member of the Crisis Communications Team. “For example, if we have a situation like an active shooter, the police could send a message on their own if it’s in the best interest of protecting the University community.”

“UW-IT monitors the delivery of the message and the performance of this technology,” said Ward. “And really, if there’s a problem, we’re right there at the beginning of the process so we’re there to fix and correct things.”

UW Emergency Management and other members of the Crisis Communications Team do not send out alerts as a part of their annual training exercises, such as the Cascadia Rising earthquake drill.

“We just had a meeting recently where we talked about what’s happened in Hawaii,” said Ward. “We always want to continue training folks to prevent that kind of thing from happening here. While we have a process for review, mistaken messages are certainly a vulnerability and a concern. If a bad message or incorrect message went out here, I’m confident our team would send out an all-clear or correction immediately. Finally, we would never send out a message saying ‘this is not a drill’”.

UW Outdoor Alerts

Another way the University can send out emergency notifications is by using one of the 20 blue and brown emergency phone towers located throughout campus. All of the blue phones have a loudspeaker in them that can be used to broadcast a message in large outdoor spaces, such as the HUB Lawn or Rainier Vista. While this feature is tested annually, alongside other regular testing of the emergency phone capabilities, it has not typically been used for campus emergencies.

“The outdoor alert system is sort of a last resort,” said UW Emergency Management Director Steve Charvat. “The most effective way to get out messages today is by using UW Alert because nearly everyone has their phone in their pocket at all times. The outdoor alerts are more useful in situations where cell service networks are disrupted or congested as [the outdoor alerts] don’t rely on communication networks — they use hardwired communications technology and are plugged in to the University’s emergency power system.”

UW Indoor Alerts

Finally, each building on campus has a fire alarm system. These systems, maintained by Facilities Services’ fire alarm and signal systems shop, are connected into a campus-wide alerts and intercom system that allows the Crisis Communications Team to broadcast messages inside most campus buildings. A few older, smaller buildings use readerboards instead of an intercom system, but the alert still comes through. The indoor alert system is tested annually, typically in September before most students return to campus, alongside fire alarm tests in all campus buildings.