Students, staff find problems with emergency alert system

After a record breaking winter in Ypsilanti it seems as if the harsh weather shows no signs of stopping. Livingston and Washtenaw County were hit by a tornado earlier this month, along with others in the Midwest.

While most people in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area are able to take cover in their homes during a potential natural disaster, Eastern Michigan University students and staff have access to an intelligent range of safety systems to ensure the proper safety precautions are taken.

The campus is equipped with a seven speaker outdoor alert system, which is set up to have acoustics transmit a message to students and staff in the event of a severe weather alert or other possible emergencies.

Mark Wesley, the Emergency Management Director of the school thinks that the program is working at the highest level to keep its students aware.

“This system provides a great improvement to the university’s overall safety and capability in emergency messaging and I feel makes EMU one of the top schools in the state when it comes to emergency messaging capabilities,” Wesley said.

When the tornado hit the area, the alert system transmitted a message around campus in the outdoor areas and requested that individuals on campus take cover. Faculty and students in King Hall had to take cover in the building’s basement after trying to decipher the audio message outside.

“It was very hard to hear,” said Crystal Jackson, Administrative Assistant for the Early College Alliance. “We were having to rely on our cell phones to know what was going on.”

The emergency management department did receive feedback on the concerns from people who had difficulty in King Hall.

“It is difficult to give an exact analysis without knowing the exact location of the observers.” said Wesley. “If the person was inside the building and in the basement during the tornado warning, it would sound muffled as indoor penetration is not the intent of the outdoor speaker arrays.”

Some staff members did walk outside to attempt to hear the announcements. Staff said the audio alert sounded muffled and was not audible.

Most buildings on campus are equipped with a Voiceover Fire Alarm Alert System. Other buildings with this technology include Halle Library, Pray-Harrold and the parking structures located on campus.

Though it is noted in the Public Safety information that the Student Center is equipped with this alert system, individuals in the Student Center were also in a scramble to take cover, as no announcement went off in the building. It is common in some of the older buildings that an announcement cannot be made due to the lack of technology, but the much newer Student Center is supposed to be equipped with the system.

Instead, Student Center staff began corralling students and other staff members into the auditorium to take cover.

Erin Trazzek, a Health and Human Services major was working in the School Store during the alert, and she said “People were being ushered in the auditorium to take cover.”

Another form of alert safety comes in the form of text messaging and e-mails called the Rave Alert System that students are able to opt to receive The alerts stem from severe tornado warnings to extreme road conditions on and near campus.

When the program was introduced, many had mixed feelings in regards to how well it would work. Six years ago, Professor Steven Krause posted his thoughts on EMUTalk.Org, stating that he felt the system was worth signing up for, but desired to receive e-mails more so than texts. Today, Krause feels the system does work in all forums.

“I’ve only seen this system go off as the result of a weather warning of some sort, and that seemed to work fine,” said Krause.
Jackson said that the Rave Texting system was behind the Channel 4 news report. “We’d get something from the news and then 10 minutes later, the text would come through,” Jackson said.

The hindrance the Rave System has is cell phone reception. There are locations on campus that have dead zones, including lower levels of some of the buildings like Quirk-Spongberg. The concern is whether staff and students will be alerted told to take cover in areas with no windows.

“We do have areas in buildings where cellular coverage is weak and this does affect receipt of emergency text alerts,” Wesley said. “DPS has no control over the cellular coverage that is available on campus.”

Many are still concerned with the gaps in the system, but DPS says they are continually looking for ways to improve the programs that are offered for public safety on campus.

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