Test of DukeALERT emergency system a success

October 22, 2009By Leanora Minai

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, Duke’s nine outdoor emergency sirens wailed.

“This is a test,” the recorded message announced.

Then, nearly 61,700 e-mail alerts and 4,639 text messages were delivered to students, faculty, staff and neighbors – all processed within about five minutes of activation.

That’s what Duke officials hoped would happen during the test of the DukeALERT emergency mass notification system, which is about a year old.

“Duke has developed a very strong system for emergency communications, but every test is an opportunity to learn something that will help us in a real crisis situation,” said Aaron Graves, associate vice president for campus safety and security.

By Thursday morning, about 1,900 staff, faculty and students from Duke University and Health System completed a survey on emergency.duke.edu to assess the effectiveness of the communication methods. According to the survey, most people received the emergency alert through the primary channels of e-mail, siren, text message and the emergency website.

“Glad to have multiple ways to get this info out,” a survey participant wrote Wednesday. “I work in a basement office and have no way of hearing the sirens, so getting both a text message on my cell phone and an e-mail message in my inbox works well.”

The majority – 54 percent of survey participants – reported receiving a DukeALERT e-mail; 26 percent heard the outdoor sirens; and 15 percent received the text message.

Nearly half of the survey participants said that the first notification came through e-mail, and 41 percent heard the sirens first. About 10 percent received initial notification through a text message; and 2 percent relied on direct contact from a supervisor or residence coordinator.

At least 19 community members posted feedback about the test on the Facebook fan page for Working@Duke. “Got the email, didn’t hear the sirens in Perkins Library,” an employee wrote.

Some Duke community members appeared confused about where they should be able to hear the sirens, which are strategically placed across campus. Some said they could not hear the tone inside their offices; others reported hearing it inside a building, and even downtown.

Graves said the sirens are designed to address only one audience – people who are outside because they may not have instant access to e-mail, phone or the web in an emergency. He said a siren’s sound range will vary based on location and conditions like terrain, buildings and outdoor noise.

“We’ve built redundancy into the system with our various tools so people can take immediate action in the event of a life-threatening emergency,” said Graves, who encouraged community members to register for Duke’s text messaging service.

Graves said he and other Duke officials will review and assess the feedback for continual improvement.