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Campus Life

Send Word Now: This Is Only a Test

University continues to improve emergency alert system

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A recent campuswide test of Boston University’s emergency notification system sent alerts to students, faculty, and staff members within 32 minutes — a success, according to University officials.

“We were extremely pleased with the results,” says Peter Fiedler, vice president for administrative services. “I feel confident that if we had to alert the campus right now, we could do it successfully and prevent any loss of life.”

The University adopted the alert system, called Send Word Now and designed to send warnings quickly to large numbers of people, in response to last April’s campus shootings at Virginia Tech. The system transmits voice and text messages, describing the situation and providing instructions on what to do, to mobile phones, landlines, e-mail systems, and pagers.

Since implementing Send Word Now last August, BU has tested the system three times. The first test, on October 12, 2007, was unsuccessful. “The vendor was clearly not ready to handle such a large volume of data,” says Fiedler. “There were slowdowns in e-mail transmissions and complete failures in text messages.”

University officials met with Send Word Now representatives shortly after to discuss ways to improve and expedite the alert system. “They promised that by February 29, the system would be capable of meeting our needs,” Fiedler says.

While a second test, conducted in December, was more successful, it still did not meet the University’s expectations. On Wednesday, March 19, BU officials issued a third test, sending nearly 112,000 alerts through the Send Word Now system. Send Word Now was not notified of the test in advance. It took between 11 and 32 minutes for the messages to come through, according to Fiedler.

Several factors affect transmission time, because messages are routed through several carriers before reaching their final destination. Send Word Now must first send the messages through local cell phone carriers, which then transmit them to carriers in Connecticut; those carriers ultimately send them to transit towers in Boston. “There are a lot of steps that happen between when the message leaves New York and when it gets to your phone,” Fiedler says.

The third test was conducted at 10 a.m. on March 19, in collaboration with the University of Delaware. “We wanted to test the vendor’s ability to handle twice the amount of data we would normally transmit,” says Boston University Police Chief Thomas Robbins. “The test went well, and in total, more than 70,000 people from BU and Delaware received messages within 30 minutes.”

Feedback for the tests has been mixed. “You get the occasional naysayer,” Fiedler says, “but for the most part, people have been extremely supportive and have offered constructive criticism.”

Senior University officials and members of the BUPD meet with the Send Word Now action committee every other week to discuss improvements to the system. “I think people should sleep well at night knowing there’s a dedicated group of people who are working carefully on this issue on a week-to-week basis,” Fiedler says.

Last fall, the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Dean of Students mandated that all students provide the University with an emergency telephone number via the Student Link. Students who failed to comply risked being blocked from registering for spring semester classes. Fiedler says that to date, nearly 98 percent of students have submitted numbers.

And although it is not required, faculty and staff are strongly encouraged to provide emergency contact numbers through the Employee Link.

In case of an emergency, University officials will also transmit information via the BU homepage, the BU Emergency Management Web page, BU Today, and the BU cable television system.

The BU Police Department has 50 state-trained and deputized officers with advanced training in disaster scenarios, according to Robbins.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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