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.

Getting the Most Out Of the System
The university currently uses a feed from the National Weather Service for its system, so if a tornado is actually going to touch down around campus, outdoor sirens automatically go off.

“Time is lives,” Morgan says. “The automation is done in a timely manner so we don’t have to worry about logging into a computer while a tornado is bearing down on us.”

UCF also has an explicit, detailed policy about who can operate the system. Authorized users include the chief of police, directors and coordinators of the emergency management department and the news and information department on campus (news and information serves primarily as a backup operator). The president and vice president can also request it, but police dispatchers or emergency management personnel still have to activate the system.

A separate policy outlines the times the system can be used. An emergency notification is only sent out in situations where life safety is threatened or if there’s been a major impact on university operations.

“If we had to shut down a parking garage full of cars for an investigation, we’ll send out an alert,” Thalheimer says. “But we don’t use it for traffic jams or class cancellations or anything like that.”

To ensure the system is working properly, it’s tested roughly twice a month. In order to keep operators comfortable with the system, a test group was set up that sends alerts to university dispatchers and peers.

“That way when they’re using it in a real situation, they’ve done it before so it’s reactionary, like muscle memory,” Thalheimer explains.

Making Thalheimer a full-time emergency coordinator allows him to work with new dispatchers to make sure they send out the right information in an appropriate manner.

“[He’s] able to train them so it’s not something they’re afraid of,” Morgan says. “You always get a little nervous about hitting send before something goes to 81,000 people.”

The Process Never Stops
UCF gets continuous support from Eaton, with school officials speaking with representatives on a regular basis.

“We advise our clients to build on an initial installation,” Eaton’s Vice President of Marketing Ted Milburn says. “One communication technique is never the silver bullet. Start with, say, outdoor if that’s your biggest need, then you can add to that system as you go.”

Having Thalheimer working with the system full time also ensures it’s always operational.

“He keeps a finger on the pulse of the system to keep it running,” Morgan says. “And if anything goes down, we’ve got a budget for that, so even though we test it out loud, he’s als
o checking it every day to address any needs.”

In addition to frequent tests, all new buildings that go up on campus must be built with integration capabilities for the system, so as the campus develops, the system improves. “It really is a continuing process,” Thalheimer says.

As the process continues, the system gets closer to perfect for the UCF campus. That’s important because, as UCF officials know too well, you can’t control the weather. Luckily for the UCF community, schools can control their response.

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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