November 13, 2008

Siren, Voicemail, Text Message Alerts Prove Successful in Test

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At about 12:10 p.m., a new sound joined the regular rustling of fallen leaves, perpetual prattle of pedestrians and typical traffic noise. The wailing of C.U.’s emergency sirens pounded the eardrums of people on virtually all locations of Cornell campus — no matter how seemingly isolated or remote. In the future the sounding of the sirens could indicate an emergency, but yesterday was a test.
The University tested its emergency system in order to gauge its effectiveness and efficiency. Richard McDaniel, vice president of risk management and public safety, said the emergency system consists of three ways to alert students, faculty and staff to the presence of an emergency on campus: sirens, voice messages and text messages.
There are four sirens located on top of the Hans Bethe House, Mary Donlon Hall, Bartels Hall and the College of Veterinary Medicine. The placement of the sirens was strategically selected so all areas of the campus would fall within the range of at least one siren. Accompanying the sirens, McDaniel explained, is a public address system that would instruct listeners about what actions they are supposed to take during an emergency.
Voice and text messages will also be sent out in the event of an emergency to many students and faculty who have submitted their emergency contact information. The messages are brief –– the text messages are limited to 110 characters –– and like the public address system, tell students what actions to take during the emergency.
“This was the first time we have conducted a test of all three,” Peggy Matta, director of the Office of Emergency Planning and Recovery, said.
McDaniel described the difficult and intricate process of sending out the voice and text messages. The contact information of students, faculty and staff is kept on campus. During the test today or during an emergency, the data would be transferred to Alert Now, a company employed by the University. Alert Now then sends the data to the different carriers, which in turn send out the voice and text messages to each individual person.
During the test, all messages were received within 14 minutes of the initiation of the test — a time McDaniel said was very efficient. In addition, the initial results showed that everyone who was registered within the system received a message.
“It looks as though everything met our expectations,” McDaniel said.
As the siren was audible to passersby on campus, students walking past Kennedy Hall did not even look up or seem to acknowledge the introduction of this new sound to their surroundings.
Matta explained that the University made sure that students were aware of the test so as not to be alarmed by the siren. C.U. sent a University-wide e-mail about the test, and, according to Matta, all students she spoke with knew of the test before it occurred.
“I actually forgot about it,” Victor Wu ’11 said, referring to the e-mail he had received alerting him about the test. But when he heard the siren and saw that none of the other students seemed to be reacting at all to it, he remembered that the testing for the emergency systems was today. About five minutes after first hearing the siren, Wu received both the voice and text messages.
McDaniel said that Cornell has constantly been “at the front end” of emergency notification technology. The University had been improving its system even before the tragedy at Virginia Tech last April, which left 33 students dead. According to The New York Times, many students at Virginia Tech were not notified of the shootings until hours after they occurred. Some received e-mail notifications, but many walked around the campus after the first shootings occurred before the gunman had been detained.
The emergency notification system is in place not only for potential shootings, but also for other emergencies including extreme weather, a chemical release or any other potentially hazardous circumstances, Matta explained.
Since the sirens cannot be heard in the buildings on campus, the voice and text messages play crucial roles in informing the community in emergencies. McDaniel said that approximately 50 percent of all students and around 52 percent of faculty members have their emergency contact information in the database for the emergency notifications system. While those are good enrollment numbers in comparison to the typical college campus, both McDaniel and Matta stressed the need for more students and faculty to register.
While they were both pleased with the results of the test –– the sirens were effective, the voice and text messages were sent out quickly and efficiently, and most, if not all, of the students and faculty members who were registered received the messages — they explained that constantly ensuring the University is prepared for an emergency is a never-ending process.
“As the technology changes, we have to change with it,” Matta said.
There is always new technology that the University has to look into even if the current system is functioning more than adequately. In addition, based on the last siren test last April, there were dead spots or points on campus where none of the sirens penetrated. Matta explained that they sent out a team to each of those spots, and they are working to make sure there are no areas on campus that cannot hear the sirens. Matta and McDaniel are still trying adamantly to get more students and faculty members to register, they said.
Students can register their emergency contact information at> and faculty and staff at> Additional information can be found at