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 Tuesday, September 11, 2007 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Lessons Learned…
Paul Tabolt, Vice Chancellor for Administration

It was not that long ago that news of the Virginia Tech tragedy shocked and saddened the world and particularly those of us in higher education. Most were quick to realize that a tragedy of this nature, or a host of other emergency situations, could befall our campus at any time. During the summer, we asked how would we respond? How would we communicate? Who would communicate to the campus in an emergency situation?

The Virginia Tech tragedy presented us with a time for reflection, evaluation and hopefully, learning. Shortly after the Virginia Tech incident, we charged an Emergency Communications Systems Task Force to study how our campus responds to emergencies and how we could improve our emergency communications. While the charge—to develop prioritized recommendations of systems and strategies to enhance our ability to warn the campus community of a pending threat or emergency situation—was simple, the work was not.

It quickly became clear that a single communication system will never be adequate due to the broad scope of potential emergency situations, the various campus constituents to notify, and the expectation that notifications should happen almost instantaneously. As a result, the task force determined that the best approach toward campus communications is to have multiple and overlapping communications systems with the objective of reaching as many people as possible by as many means as possible. As evidenced by the emergency incident that occurred on the first day of fall semester classes and the emergency communications that were subsequently required, it proved invaluable that we had already begun to take steps to enhance some of our existing systems, implement new systems and improve community awareness of appropriate responses in an emergency.

The recommendations put forth by the task force included the implementation of an emergency text message notification system, a system that was only made available right before the first day of fall semester classes. With the start of the fall semester, students, faculty and staff had the ability to enter their cell phone number into the Rave Wireless system to receive emergency text notification messages in the event of an emergency. To date, more than 10,000 CU-Boulder faculty, staff and students have opted to receive campus text message alerts.  

It's also time to expand and enhance our outdoor siren/public address system and improve IT infrastructure to better support emergency communications. The campus has committed $150,000 towards outdoor siren and public address systems improvements that will more broadly deliver alerts and more clearly deliver public address system messages. Information and Technology Services has been asked to define how we can more quickly deliver electronic communication at a time when we know we will be faced with the need for rapid communications within our community, as well as from parents, families, friends and interested parties from across the nation and around the globe. The campus is in the final stages of developing message templates for primary emergencies, though all of us agree that templates are likely to only be a guide given the unique nature of any individual emergency. We are exploring how we might use a number of existing electronic message boards in various locations in an emergency situation and are exploring how we can deliver a stronger personal safety education program.

Despite several positive improvements, the campus still needs your help. Register your cell phone number with Rave Wireless if you haven't already done so. We want you to be positioned to receive critical campus communications via text messaging. Also, as a way to receive instant messages in emergency situations, it is important to use the campus's main Web site as a way to receive emergency messages. It is the quickest and most efficient way to receive emergency information and instant updates.

I know there has been some discussion among faculty and staff about the administration not sending an e-mail message out until late on the day (approximately 11 p.m.) of Aug. 27 following the stabbing of CU-Boulder student Michael Knorps. In fact, an e-mail message was sent out on earlier in the day CU-Boulder's "Keycom" key communicators list, which includes a significant number of the campus's deans, department heads and program directors for dissemination to individual departments, but hindsight tells us we need to do more. We are updating and refining our approach for e-mail communications and are working on creating e-mail emergency message capabilities that will provide short messages to large groups of people.

Even with better planning and more options, it is important for faculty, staff and students to realize that e-mails are a perilously slow and inefficient way to deliver emergency messages in times of crisis and quickly changing conditions. On Aug. 27, we were poised several times to send out a mass e-mail updating the campus on the day's developments, but each time we became aware of new information that would have rendered the message obsolete. We also learned during last winter's blitz of December snowstorms, and in the spring emergency at Boulder High School, that e-mails were not adequate to sending timely and relevant messages. So in emergencies, we should all be prepared to use the Rave emergency system, the CU-Boulder main Web site, the newly expanded emergency information line at 303-492-INFO or 303-735-INFO, outdoor messages, staff communication and printed postings (particularly in housing) and media broadcast crawls (the information that continuously runs at the bottom of a picture) and a host of other measures to stay informed. E-mail should not be seen as the main conduit to communication in emergency situations simply because it is the way we all choose to communicate in non-emergency situations.

As the semester progresses, you can be assured that we will grow in our communication capabilities in emergency and non-emergency situations alike. I look forward to your input and ideas on other practices we might undertake to improve our communication. After all, some of the best solutions to challenges such as those posed by emergency situations come from the experience and savvy of you, our experienced faculty and staff. If you have ideas, send them to me at . In the meantime, you have my best wishes for a save and productive fall semester and 2007-08 academic year.


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