A recently concluded test of the emergency notification system at Fort Hays State University showed that in the case of an actual emergency, nearly everyone on campus would be aware of the situation within a few minutes.
"Our team reviewed feedback from the campus and examined the diagnostics provided by our vendor for the emergency notification system, Leader Alert, and we concluded that the test was a success," said Kent Steward, FHSU's director of University Relations and the coordinator of the Crisis Management Team. "The test was a success in two important ways: Thousands of people on campus received the test alert within a few minutes, and steps have been initiated to correct problems that were identified."
The five members of the university's 12-member Crisis Management Team who are charged with activating alerts met on the morning of Thursday, April 2, to conduct the system-wide test. They are Steward; Ed Howell, director of University Police; Todd Powell, university general counsel; Tisa Mason, vice president for Student Affairs; and Mike Barnett, vice president for Administration and Finance. Ellis County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Ring also participated in the test and the evaluation session. It was the second system-wide test that has been conducted, coming one year to the day after an April 2, 2008, test.
The group assembled in the conference room at FHSU's Center of Public Safety and sent an initial test alert at 10:49 a.m. They quickly realized the database had not been activated correctly and the message had not gone out, so they sent the test alert out correctly at 10:55 a.m. It is important to note that in the case of a real emergency, that 6-minute delay would have been much shorter, but because it was only a test, the group took a few minutes to discuss what had gone wrong instead of simply resending the alert immediately.
Within less than 10 minutes, the Leader Alert system had placed calls to all 5,787 students, faculty and staff who had provided their emergency contact information on TigerTracks on the university Web site. The diagnostics provided by Leader Alert showed that 5,346 of the calls connected either live or as voice mail messages. That is an extremely high completion rate within a satisfactory time frame. A year ago, it took almost twice as long -- 17 minutes -- to complete the calls. As a result of last year's test, Leader Alert contacted telephone carriers to ensure more efficient use of their lines so that the phone calls would be completed more quickly in the future. So, the 2008 test identified a problem and the 2009 test confirmed that the problem had been corrected.
Steward sent an e-mail after the test to all students, faculty and staff requesting feedback, and their responses revealed a problem with phone messages that had not been evident in last year's test. Several individuals reported they had received a voice-mail message but when they checked the message, they heard nothing. A Leader Alert technician confirmed that when a call is not answered, the system is sound-activated to deliver the message to voice mail, but if the receiving telephone delays too long after the beep before it starts recording, the message may be entirely or partially missing. Of the 5,346 alerts that connected by telephone, 2,145 were delivered as voice mail. Feedback indicated that some students, faculty and staff did successfully receive voice-mail messages, but it was not possible to determine how many of the total voice-mail messages were delivered intact and how many failed.
The test also showed that telephones in classrooms did not ring. Following the test a year ago, several people suggested that classroom telephones be added to the alert system. That somehow failed to happen, but that lapse was immediately corrected following this year's test. Not only the telephones in classrooms, but also courtesy telephones, emergency telephones and elevator telephones across the campus -- a total of 138 -- have now been added to the emergency notification system. While the failure again this year was disappointing, the test served its purpose by identifying the problem so that it could finally be corrected.
The group also received feedback indicating that some students, faculty and staff did not recognize the telephone number when the alert arrived and elected not to answer their telephones. Therefore, the team will make greater efforts to encourage users to enter the telephone number that the ENS system uses to deliver alerts -- (785) 628-5978 -- into their cell phones so that incoming calls from that number will be recognized as emergency alerts from the university.
Text messages were the greatest failure in this year's test. Because the text-message telephone numbers had been inadvertently omitted from the database that was sent from the university to Leader Alert at the beginning of the semester, no text messages were sent during the test. This sounds like a major failure, but in practical terms it was of secondary importance. The text-messaging feature is only supplementary. In last year's test, which included text messages, only 10 percent of the messages were confirmed as delivered, and feedback indicated that they tended to arrive long after the telephone messages had been received.
As a result, the group decided to add a third option to the emergency notification information that users enter on TigerTracks. At present, the options include only a telephone number and an e-mail address of the user's choice for emergencies. That single telephone number was intended for use in delivering both telephone calls and text messages. Adding the choice of a specific text-message telephone number will eliminate the possibility of omitting the text-message number in the university database.
Leader Alert and other vendors advised the Crisis Management Team two years ago that existing technology did not allow text messages to be delivered reliably or in a timely manner and would function only as a supplement to the vastly more efficient telephone messages. Recently, the group has learned that there may be some vendors that offer effective text-message delivery. The Crisis Management Team will explore that possibility.
Like last year, the only diagnostic report for e-mails was a complete list showing whether each message was successfully sent or failed. This year's test revealed only 135 "bad" e-mail addresses out of the nearly 6,000 in the system. However, no diagnostic is technologically available to show conclusively that a message has been received or when it has been received. Like text messages, e-mail messages effectively serve only as a back-up to the far more effective telephone messages. In other words, a handful of individuals might receive an e-mail or a text message before receiving a telephone call.
"The purpose of the emergency notification system is to give speedy notification to the campus in the event of a dangerous situation," Steward said. "We know from the test that at least 3,201 students, faculty and staff, and possibly nearly 5,300, received an alert within less than 10 minutes. Efforts will continue to make the system more effective, but our testing group is confident that had there been a real emergency on the morning of April 2, 2009, the warning would have spread rapidly to every corner of the campus in a way that would have seemed unimaginable just a few short years ago."