Friday afternoon saw Yale Emergency Management working at top speed to alert the community from a command center in Woodbridge Hall.
Most community members saw some evidence of the scramble: a quick succession of e-mails, text messages and calls or speakers blaring messages from loudspeakers. The messages, which told of a “test of the Yale Alert System,” may have seemed like a simple communications drill, but in fact required a team of six people and a carefully orchestrated, timed and executed procedure.
Martha Highsmith, deputy secretary for the University, led the communications drill, which she said is conducted once per semester. The system was originally put in place to deal with situations such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, she said, but it is now used to report on anything from major emergencies to gas leaks or power outages, and employs 10 different forms of communications.
Friday’s drill went as well as possible, Maria Bouffard, director of Emergency Management said: the most people were reached in the shortest amount of time.
In addition to the calls, texts, e-mails and loud speaker alerts that students and faculty received, Highsmith and the rest of the team sent out messages via Facebook, Twitter, the University website and the flat-screen monitors across campus.
Between these various strategies, essentially every undergraduate should be notified in the event of an emergency, Highsmith said. Roughly 95 percent of graduate students, professional students and faculty also receive alerts, but some choose to opt out of the system, she added. All told, the alert system will send out 40,000 calls and e-mails within 10 minutes, Highsmith said.
“We are just short of having carrier pigeons,” Bouffard said of the different methods that the University uses to reach the community during an emergency.
Highsmith said the system was designed to send community members the same message through several mediums so as to reach everyone and in case there were a glitch in some component of the procedure.
“If one part fails, some other will work,” she said.
The Friday drill began at 2:05 p.m. when Highsmith received a call from the Yale Police Department simulating an emergency. She said the emergency procedure is set up so that either herself, University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer or Don Filer, the director of the Office of International Affairs and associate secretary of the University, is always near campus to take charge during a crisis.
Although the six-person team was assembled in Woodbridge Hall for Friday’s drill, the point of the exercise was to simulate a real emergency, so all communication was conducted via telephone.
After first hearing of the emergency, Highsmith called Bouffard and dictated the message that the entire community would soon hear and read, “This is a test of the Yale Alert System. There is no emergency at this time. You do not need to respond.”
But the message is not always so straight-forward, she said. If there were an actual emergency, the content of the message would have to be “just right”: conforming to the 160-character constraint of SMS messages, providing people with enough information and setting a tone not too alarmist.
After taking the dictation, Bouffard activated the voice, text and e-mail messages. Then she contacted Associate Secretary Maggie McDonnell and told her to send out the Web-based alerts.
All of this was accomplished within three minutes.
Next, David Boyd, the associate director of Information Technology Services (and who oversees public safety technology), activated the voice alerts. Exterior alerts came from certain blue phones, and interior ones from speakers in certain buildings, Highsmith said.
She added that as buildings are renovated, the University is installing loudspeaker technology. The blue phone speakers, however, have been more difficult to implement; in addition to a more complex installation, the University needs to determine the distance that the messages could cover, and which New Haven residents would be exposed to the sound.
With the help of Rick Fontana, the deputy director of Emergency Management for New Haven, the University created a map of the area affected by the loudspeakers, Highsmith said. Yale will send out explanatory e-mails about drills to those residents who might hear the warning, she added.
After the first eight minutes of activity, all that was left to do was make sure the system was functioning. The team in Woodbridge waited patiently for their e-mails and calls. By 2:20 — just 15 minutes after the drill began — the last person had received their messages.
The timing of the communications is a complicated procedure, Highsmith said. Because the system has to deal with so many messages, not everything can come at the same time, initially causing a drawn-out emergency response, she added.
But with practice, the communications team streamlined the system, and Friday’s drill went off without a hitch, Bouffard said.
Towards the end of the drill, Bouffard took a call from someone near the blue phone at the corner of Prospect and Sachem streets that said, “When they heard the voice message, everybody stopped in their tracks, got off their bikes and looked at the speaker.”
“That’s great. Very good feedback,” Bouffard told the group.
New Haven also has an emergency communication system that will send text messages and e-mails to citizens who sign up.