University emergency response system effective in storm

By Charlene Lerner, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 20, 2012

While emergency sirens blasted throughout Ann Arbor last Thursday amid hail and lightning to warn locals of a fast-approaching tornado, the University used its own system to caution campus of an impending emergency.

The University’s Emergency Alert system, implemented in February 2008 by the University’s Department of Public Safety, has bridged the gap between mass-warning signaling and the lack of informative details. On Thursday, the system sent e-mails to all University students, faculty and staff. Text and voicemail messages were also sent to those who registered for the additional notification service.

The system is the most reliable communication system in sending direct information to the University community, according to DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown.

“With the emergency alert, you can send a text message, voice message and an e-mail message so that people can get more information than they would get from a non-worded siren,” Brown said.

Though all students, faculty and staff are sent an e-mail notification when the system activates, it takes a long time to process, Brown said. An additional 32 percent of students, as well as 31 percent of faculty and 41 percent of staff, have another device registered for more frequent and detailed messages.

The system was active for Thursday’s emergency and sent an initial e-mail and text message notice about the National Weather Service’s tornado warning. At 6:30 p.m. another e-mail update was sent when the warning was extended to 7:15 p.m. Finally, at 7:15, an e-mail was sent to alert the University community that the warning had expired, but a flash flood warning and thunderstorm watch were still in effect.

According to Perry Samson, professor of atmospheric science, there is no sure way of scientifically predicting a tornado far in advance, especially in the spring.

“A tornado this time of year would never be expected,” Samson wrote in an e-mail interview. “That said, the atmospheric models that day did show great potential for convection. It is easy now in hindsight to see that the potential peaked in the late afternoon at a level higher than (at least I) expected.”

Samson added that determining a storm’s exact location is difficult, and said he was surprised that it touched down in Dexter.

He also wrote that, with the exception of 2011, which saw a series of devastating tornadoes in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, deaths due to tornadoes have been limited since 1970.

Samson credits technological advantages for these improved percentages.

“Much of this decrease can be directly attributed to the improved forecasting of storm formation plus improved radar capability, hand-in-hand with more personal and mobile notification systems,” Samson wrote. “As we reach the point when all can receive notification, (our) next challenge is to impress upon the population the value of heeding these warnings and the need to improve access to adequate shelter for those living in homes without basements.”

While DPS primarily uses the emergency alert system to send out weather-related warnings that could potentially affect campus, it has also been used for other threatening incidents, such as a reported gunman on campus, large gas leaks and two separate armed robberies in 2010, according to University emergency manager Andy Burchfield.

Burchfield added that DPS tests the system routinely twice a year, once in the spring and in the fall.

With evolving technology and continued reliance on text messaging as the quickest and most efficient mode of communication, the decision to implement the emergency alert system was a crucial move for DPS.

“From the University’s perspective, it’s to put forward our best foot in trying to help people better prepare themselves for emergencies that could occur,” Burchfield said. “The U-M emergency alert system is one more key source that is available to our faculty, staff and students that they can utilize and register for in order to receive alerts when potential imminent danger may impact them.”

Brown added that the system is especially important in the age of texting.

“As it grew in popularity and acceptance and as vendors were able to find ways to advance text messages, then the University looked for ways to explore how we could fit that into our way of communicating with text messages,” Brown said.

The system is one of a combination of resources that DPS wants the community to utilize in case of emergency, along with television, news and the outdoor warning sirens, according to Burchfield.

“The more resources you have in your toolbox, the better prepared you’re going to be. That’s why we really advocate for people to register for this system because this does key in on the University itself,” Burchfield said.

Social Work student Kelly Pearson said she registered for the alert system when she was a freshman at the University.

“I thought that if something was happening on campus, it would be good to know about it,” Pearson said. “I have unlimited texting, so I figured it was better to be safe than sorry.”

The continuous text message updates confirmed the severity of the storm for Pearson, who was at Dominick’s on Monroe Street when the storm started, and helped her decide to take precaution.

“Especially when I got an alert that the tornado was actually close by in Dexter I thought ‘OK, let’s go downstairs and take cover,’” Pearson said. “The alerts gave more details and updates as the storm was progressing, getting closer and getting worse.”

The emergency alert system is set for its spring test Friday at noon.