Notre Dame Relies On Cellular Alerting Platform During Fire

A fire in a utility tunnel knocked out communication but couldn’t derail emergency alerting.

A fire in a utility tunnel of the University of Notre Dame took out landline communications and Internet access at 36 campus buildings, which forced the higher-education institution to rely on cellular alerting.

Using the Blackboard Connect service, university emergency managers quickly sent out 11 seperate messages to students, faculty, and staff to keep them apprised of the situation.

The university’s Emergency Operations Center’s leadership credited the platform with easing the distribution of voice and text messages over a cellular network.

“We’ve developed a comprehensive communications strategy and Blackboard Connect is one of those protocols,” according to Jay Steed, the university’s executive assistant to the CIO. “For us, the service is a vital tool in support of our broader emergency plan. It’s an extremely useful service in an emergency situation.”

Connectivity For Campus Evacuation

On the morning of Aug. 28, 2009 (a Friday), a fire in a utility tunnel under the Notre Dame campus severely damaged a large amount of telecommunications fiber. Smoke filtered into several campus buildings, forcing classroom and residence hall evacuations, and the university quickly lost partial Internet connectivity, public address, landline and cellular service. Heating and cooling (HVAC) systems also became inoperable in approximately a third of campus buildings.

“We’re just fortunate it wasn’t a home football weekend, as we would have had an additional 100,000 people on campus,” according to Steed. “As it was, we still had hundreds of people evacuated from classrooms and buildings—and a severely damaged communications infrastructure—during the first week of fall classes.”

The Blackboard Connect service has been an important part of Notre Dame’s comprehensive emergency notification plan since May of 2007. The university has worked to effectively brand the notification service as “ND Alert,” integrating it into student, staff, and faculty awareness.

Since its inception, the service has been used only for emergencies.

“When our registrar asks for cell phone numbers, students are assured that the numbers will only be used in case of an emergency,” said Steed. As result, the university has a high opt-in rate among students and can quickly send messages to a majority of the campus population during an emergency.

As the event progressed throughout the morning—and various communications protocols continued to experience disruption—Notre Dame turned to Blackboard Connect to facilitate emergency messaging.

“For 36 of our buildings, we lost Internet and landline functionality,” Steed added. “Cellular capabilities [of] voice and text remained as the best methods to communicate widely with the campus.”

In total, university officials sent out 11 notifications via the Blackboard Connect platform. The university relied on the service for a variety of messages related to activating the Emergency Operations Center, as well as alerting students, faculty, and staff away from areas of possible danger.

The EOC team is responsible for communicating with first responders and coordinating communication with campus departments and administration. Blackboard Connect was also enlisted as part of the university’s recovery effort. As the focus shifted to restoration, phone messages were sent to notify students that residence halls and campus buildings were safe to occupy.

Leaders Connect to Students, Faculty and Staff

By 1:30 pm, the university deactivated its EOC. Campus-wide communication capabilities, however, would not be fully functional until the following Monday. Preparedness played a large role in the university’s handling of the crisis and, while the fire may have created multiple inconveniences, no one was seriously hurt and only one person received emergency treatment.

“We have a crisis preparedness emergency response plan, and we’ve done formal, tabletop exercises to run through our emergency procedures,” said Steed. “Because we had practiced, we already knew how we were going to use the Blackboard Connect service during the fire emergency, and we were able to utilize the service when Internet connectivity was disrupted.”

The university’s commitment to a multi-modal emergency communications plan was integral to the effective management of the emergency. As various communication channels failed, leaders were still able to connect with students, faculty, and staff via the Blackboard Connect service.

“We’ve developed a comprehensive communications strategy, and Blackboard Connect is one of those protocols,” Steed said. “For us, the service is a vital tool in support of our broader emergency plan.”

The Blackboard Connect platform’s redundancy measures and multiple servers—located across the nation—also play a crucial role in the university’s emergency preparedness.

“One of the key things we’ve noted about the Blackboard Connect service is its availability across geographic regions,” Steed added. “During a campus emergency, this kind of redundancy is essential.”

Located 90 miles east of Chicago in South Bend, Ind., the University of Notre Dame serves more than 11,700 students, 8,363 of whom are undergraduates.

Travis Sowders is an executive with Blackboard Connect.

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