Mass Notification Tips from Tornado Country

Officials at the University of Central Florida, all too familiar with severe weather, stay prepared with a state-of-the-art emergency notification system.

In 2008, the closest thing the University of Central Florida (UCF) had to a mass notification system was email.

Nowadays, the school has redundant, integrated notification systems set up at each of its campuses and enrolls more than 81,000 people in its messaging system. Policies dictate who can send messages and when, and the people with the authority to send messages know the program like the back of their hands.

The transition to becoming mass notification pros didn’t come easily for UCF. It took long hours of planning, hard work and administrative buy-in to secure the necessary resources for an effective system. To get a better idea of the process, Campus Safety spoke with UCF officials who were on the front line as the system was implemented. These people remain entrenched in the full-time job that is required to maintain an emergency notification system.

UCF Secures Funding
In 2008, a new wrinkle was added to the Jeanne Clery Act that required schools to notify their students and employees of possible incidents that represent a threat to their safety. This emergency notification requirement opened schools up to a broad array of liability issues.

Another reason that UCF officials felt compelled to get a mass notification system was the severe weather the school frequently experiences. There are more thunderstorms in Florida than in any other state, and the storms bring the highest density of lightning strikes and flash flooding in the country. There are also more tornadoes per square mile in Florida than in any other state, and although they are generally weaker than in the Midwest, strong tornadoes do occasionally form.

“They’re not always category 4s or 5s, but we have a vast number of [tornadoes] and they complicate things,” UCF Director of Security and Emergency Management Jeff Morgan says.

In 2008, the university received a small DHS grant for emergency notification improvements. UCF used the money to test various types of mass notification systems, including outdoor sirens, radios and text messaging services. It was around that time that the school hired Joe Thalheimer, one of the first warning and communications coordinators at a college in the country.

Once UCF’s emergency management officials determined they needed an integrated notification solution, they talked with administrators about funding options to complement the grant. In the end, it didn’t take much effort to demonstrate the need for more effective mass notification. By the fall of 2008, UCF green-lit a major notification system upgrade, with most funds coming directly from the university.

The University Implements Eaton
The Eaton mass notification system was the only system at the time that had been approved by the Department of Homeland Security Safety Act. The fact that Morgan had previously used Eaton’s system in the military and was comfortable with it also helped shorten the decision-making process.

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In the end, UCF didn’t even take any competing bids, which Thalheimer attributes to a strong research process. “Back then, other universities would be installing systems piece meal, so they’d have one company for indoor sirens and another company for digital messaging and so on,” he says. “So one thing we liked was the integration capabilities because our goal was to make dispatchers’ lives easier. We saw with Eaton that they could operate every facet of the system without having to log on to a bunch of different systems.”

UCF started by installing four outdoor sirens around its main campus. Then school officials began considering notification options for the larger buildings on campus. Due to code requirements, the big buildings already had fire evacuation systems with voice commands, and Eaton was able to integrate the fire panels to send alerts through them.

The university’s IT department also assisted in the implementation. Although early on the IT department didn’t have a big part in the installation, they played a crucial role in setting up the text messaging alert system that runs under an opt-out program.

“We start every semester with 100 percent enrollment [in emergency messaging],” Morgan explains. “And if students or faculty don’t want to receive alerts, they have to personally opt out on their own. So IT was able to integrate the software with data from Human Resources to create the accounts.”

The system is also integrated with UCF’s web homepage. “Right now we have 81,000 people in our messaging system,” Thalheimer says. “But that doesn’t include parents and loved ones of students, so the homepage has been a big thing too.”

About the Author

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Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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