Knowledge Center: Emergency Communications

Knowledge Center: Emergency Communications

A campus evacuation at the University of Texas shows an emergency communications plan in action.

Last month, after receiving phone call threats that bombs would be detonated on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, officials decided the threats warranted evacuation of campus facilities.

The threat proved to be a hoax, and normal campus operations resumed after several hours. Still, the incident provided the university with an opportunity to put its emergency communication system into action. To get the word out about the emergency to some 70,000 students, faculty, employees and others in the community, the university took advantage of many modes of communication.

"We used UT's emergency text messaging system, the campus-wide siren, the UT website, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and other digital media to instruct members of the campus community to leave their buildings, university president Bill Powers wrote on his blog.

The Texas campus, like many higher-education institutions that have learned from crises at other schools, has developed an emergency communications plan that sends out critical information over numerous paths to ensure that timely notice gets to everyone whose safety may be in jeopardy.

The emergency preparedness plan for the University of Texas spells out many of the ways information may be disseminated in an emergency:

  • Siren system. The university installed several sirens in 2007 to blast a warning and deliver a public address to warn of an emergency.

  • Emergency website. The Web page (www.utexas.edu/emergency/) is updated with information during emergencies or campus closures. The school recommends that those in the campus community bookmark the website for easier access.

  • Local media. The university's Office of Public Affairs sends news releases and makes calls to media contacts about emergencies. Because Austin is a large community with many commuters, the university "depends a great deal on broadcast media to notify students, faculty and staff of emergencies."

  • Text alerts. Members of the campus community can sign up to receive emergency text messages.

  • Group e-mail. During emergencies, an "urgent" e-mail is sent to every student, faculty and staff member. The e-mail directs individuals to the emergency website for additional information and instruction.

  • Voicemail to office telephones. The office phone for every faculty and staff member on campus receives a voice message about an emergency.

  • Fire panel systems. In residence halls, these systems have a public address capability. In emergencies, resident advisers can use the systems to make announcements to an entire building regarding evacuation, shelter in place, or other appropriate action.

  • Telephone tree. The university president's office has a telephone tree of department contacts that is initiated during an emergency.

  • Cable TV. Residence halls and several public gathering places have cable televisions where emergency announcements are posted.

  • Patrol car announcements. University police cars are equipped with PA systems, which officers can use to provide instructions to pedestrians during emergencies.

  • Emergency phone line. During an emergency, people seeking information can call a university line to learn about building closures or other situations.

The university has assigned an individual responsible for activating each of the communication tools, and each of those people has at least two backups who also can carry out the activation.

After the campus evacuation, some people criticized Texas officials for not issuing the evacuation order until about a hour after receiving the threatening call.

Powers said he could not discuss the factors that led to his decision to evacuate the campus, but said the university will improve its emergency communications based on what it has learned.

"Any time we have an incident like this we review our emergency procedures and communications systems," Powers wrote on his blog. "We have already identified ways to make our messages clearer in the future."

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