Severe Weather Warning Puts FSU ALERT EZ to the Test

Here’s how Florida State handled one incident with it’s new emergency notification interface.

On Thursday, January 26, 2012, Florida State University emergency management was coordinating with the National Weather Service (NWS) about the threat for severe weather that night. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) had placed the region in an area of slight risk for severe weather due to an approaching cold front. The NWS office in Tallahassee sent briefing packets and hosted webinars. Everyone was on board and ready to respond.

A Tornado Watch was issued by the SPC at 4:30 p.m. and was valid until midnight. FSU emergency management actively monitored the squall line as it approached from the west. A severe thunderstorm warning was issued for FSU’s Panama City campus, about 1.5 hours west of Tallahassee. FSU’s Panama City campus maintains its own localized warning systems, so there was no need to react at the main campus. 

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As the evening progressed, all eyes were fixed on the radar. FSU emergency management participated in a live online chat with the NWS and local media on a system called NWSChat.  Conversations with students, faculty, staff and the general public were also ongoing on social media (Facebook and Twitter) and another live chat tool hosted by a local television station.

Everyone started to eye a little spin in the line of storms. The chat rooms started to buzz as the storm approached about 15 miles southwest of Tallahassee.

Then, one pass of the radar indicated severe wind gusts. The NWS issued a severe thunderstorm warning for an area that included most of Tallahassee and FSU. FSU emergency management called the FSU police dispatchers and instructed them to open the bright yellow door and press the FSU ALERT EZ button labeled “Severe Thunderstorm.”  Instantly, the FSU ALERT apparatus fired up. Sirens blared, voicemails posted and the hotline message recorded.

But wait. The next pass of the radar showed something a little more ominous, that spin was really taking shape. Immediately, the NWS issued a tornado warning for the same area covered by the previous warning. Once again, FSU emergency management called FSU police and instructed them to go back and push the “tornado warning” button. Unfortunately, nothing happened. So, FSU emergency management fired up Blackboard Connect and manually issued the warning. 

Regardless of the glitch, all FSU ALERT emergency notification messages were delivered within three minutes from when the NWS said in chat that they were going to issue the warning.  By being in the chat room, this gave FSU a jump on issuing its own alerts as opposed to waiting for the EAS and NOAA weather radios. In the end, it was still “mission success” because the FSU campus community was warned of the approaching tornado threat in a timely manner to affect a positive outcome.

FSU, Siemens and Blackboard Connect would go back to the drawing board to determine what happened and make the necessary fixes. The basket broke, but none of the eggs did. This is a testament to preparedness, response and redundancy.

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