UT Austin’s Mass Notification Methods

First Responder Notification:
This system includes selected members of the campus community who should be notified whenever there is an emergency.  Those notified at UT Austin include the campus safety and security leadership, chief of police, president, vice presidents, communications or public affairs principals and proper response personnel.

This notification is completed through multiple means (text, page, E-mail, landline and home phone). Contact is initiated by the police dispatch. Therefore, predetermined notification groups have been established and are readily available to dispatchers.  

Related Article: Building a College and University Safety and Security Structure

Text Messaging:  
UT Austin has excellent ways of communicating with the campus, but they are not perfect. The first thing we had to do was establish a data base. For several years, UT Austin struggled with getting enough numbers to cover the campus. This past year, the university used the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 to develop a policy that requires students to provide an emergency contact, including a telephone number (preferably a mobile phone). In the past, we have struggled to get to 10,000 numbers in our data base.  We now have more than 50,000.  

On September 28, 2010, we had a shooter on campus firing an AK47. Within seven minutes we had notified almost 54,000 members of the campus community. However, the text systems are limited to about 132 characters. Therefore, message content is limited. They should be used for alerts and to tell the campus to take cover or some simple instructions.

Because of the need for rapid communications, templates should be developed to quickly fill in the blank information and transmit. The text messaging system must be backed up by other systems.

We are fortunate at UT Austin to have a great working relationship with the local community authorities. We share a common satellite paging system with Austin/Travis County. On campus, we have designated three classes of pager carriers. Category “A” carriers are our first responders.  They carry 24/7. These are very easy to identify.  

Category “B” carriers are building managers and others who have the pager at their work place. One of our responsibilities is to get the word into buildings when there is an emergency. The pagers do this quite well.  Because of the satellite basis of these devices, they are very reliable means of communications.  

Category “C” pager carriers are those who are in leadership positions. They may or may not be carrying the pager 24/7. However, during an emergency, they will have their pager.  Like the text messaging system, there are limits on the amount of information that can be transmitted over this system.

The UT Austin’s outdoor warning system was purchased to alert the campus during severe weather situations. The sounding of the siren at any time other than our monthly test (first Wednesday of each month at 11:50) indicates that there is an emergency and that everyone who is outside should seek cover in the nearest building.  

There is only one sound, and that sound indicates that all should seek cover. We also have the ability to follow the siren sound with a vocal description of the emergency.  On September 28, 2010, we sounded the siren every 10 minutes to make certain that everyone on campus knew that there remained a danger.

Again, like all systems, this system has some limits. These must be understood so that compensated actions can be taken. For example, the sound of our system is not designed to penetrate all buildings. The intent is to get the word to those outside so they can seek cover. Additionally, because the sound is bouncing between buildings, any vocal announcement must be read slowly, and care must be taken not to give complicated instructions.  

Most, if not all, college and university campuses have an E-mail system, and most have designated this as an official means of communication. The E-mail system is good for providing information and instructions, but it takes time to craft a message. The distribution can also take a long time. At UT Austin, it can take us 45 minutes to get messages out to 70,000 E-mail addresses.

We understand that fact and compensate, but E-mail is a valid means of communications.

Social Media: 
This is the new animal in the jungle. At UT Austin, we had been discussing the potential for use of this media during an emergency. I was not convinced that there was great potential in its contribution.  However, our September 2010 emergency proved me wrong. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and such were invaluable in keeping the campus updated on what was happening.   

We had designated individuals update various pages that we had established. This was a very important avenue for the campus to receive information. For example, UTPD had 468 friends on their Facebook page at 8 a.m. on September 28, 2010. After the event, the number of friends grew to 10,000 by the 29thand to more than 14,000 by the 30th. Social media was where the UT Austin students went to follow this emergency on this campus.

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