November 26, 2007

Univ. Examines Crisis Response, Defines Protocol

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Amidst growing concerns over Cornell’s latest attempt at campus-wide emergency notification, the University has started to investigate issues that arose from the Nov. 7 test, seeking both answers and resolutions.
There were three main components of the Nov. 7 mass-notification test: voice messaging, text messaging and email. Each component was met with varied results.
According to Simeon Moss ’73, director of Cornell Press Relations, the voice messaging system “exceeded expectations,” with a delivery rate of nearly 27,000 messages per hour.
“We are very satisfied [with] those results,” Moss said.
The text messaging test, however, elicited concern from students and University officials alike. Students reported receiving messages late into the evening, hours after the target test time of 12:15 p.m.
During the text message test, AlertNow, the vendor for the University’s electronic mass notification system, was required to send messages to 18,000 phone numbers, more than triple what they had previously attempted, according to Moss. As a result, the AlertNow text messaging system failed.
“[AlertNow]’s engineers labored throughout the test to correct software errors and reset their system parameters,” Moss said.
The result of the text messaging test contradicted the prediction of a Nov. 1 University press release. In this press release, Richard McDaniel, vice president for risk management and public safety, stated, “Text messages can be sent much faster than voice messages.”
After the initial failure of the text messaging test, AlertNow tried again, upon request by Cornell. They re-processed the text messages to all the call numbers, stopping them before they reached students. This new test, which utilized adaptations to the notification system not available during the original test, proved much more successful, according to Moss.
“AlertNow’s lead engineer is now 99 percent certain that the problem has been resolved. AlertNow has been very cooperative in resolving these problems,” Moss said.
The third contingent of the mass-notification test, email messaging, proved inconsistent. Cornell was “disappointed with the results” of the AlertNow emailing system, according to Moss. The emailing system attempted to send emails to 50,916 student, faculty and staff email addresses, according to the University.
The University is currently using other mass-email providers to dispense emails in bulk, including MailBlaster, a program capable of sending emails — usually Crime Alerts — to all Cornell accounts in under 30 minutes. With the failure of the AlertNow email system, Moss said, Cornell is considering using these other email systems exclusively, instead of incorporating AlertNow”
“We are now re-evaluating the need and effectiveness of using an off-site solution for e-mail emergency messaging,” Moss said.
According to Moss, the University plans to conduct a follow-up test, targeting 3,600 Cornell staff members in the coming weeks. The target group of this impending test could potentially be doubled if Cornell chooses to include faculty as well. A full-scale, University-wide test, will be conducted “sometime in the coming months,” Moss said.
The results of an online student survey evaluating the Nov. 7 test have yet to be released, but should be available within the coming weeks.
Although much skepticism has been cast on the University’s choice to hire AlertNow for its mass-notification system, Moss defended the company and the University’s choice.
“This choice [to hire AlertNow] was based upon a robust procurement process involving the University’s best professionals on its project team. The field of mass notification is relatively new and it is growing fast. This company, AlertNow, had established its reputation around mass voice notification and we experienced the benefit of that,” Moss said.
While the University is invested in the AlertNow emergency system, it is also looking to other back-up systems, as well as alternate methods of mass-notification.
The Univeristy plans to implement NYAlert — an emergency notification system for the State of New York — in the next six months, according to Moss. An already implemented, functional text messaging system, 2SMS, will be linked to the new emergency interface on campus.
According to Moss, the University is considering the addition of signboards and CUTV monitors across campus, intended to display emergency messages. By the end of December, Moss said, sirens will be erected at four locations on campus. These sirens will also “be able to transmit audible messages,” Moss said.
“The emergency notification system is a good idea,” said Christofer Bello ’11. “It’s good that Cornell is trying to inform us about emergencies on campus. I just wonder how exactly the school will use our phone numbers and email addresses. What constitutes an emergency is somewhat subjective, and the school has a lot of private information on their hands.”