Planned sirens to alert campus in emergency

An emergency siren system that would alert the entire campus when activated is now awaiting approval and cooperation from the city of Providence.

If approved, the sirens would be the most significant of several efforts by the University to increase security on campus after a Virginia Tech student killed 32 people and himself at the Blacksburg, Va., campus in April in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

The plan proposes the installation of three sirens – one near the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center, a second around Thayer Street and a third closer to the center of campus, said Walter Hunter, vice president for administration and the University’s chief risk officer. At the origin of the sound, the siren would be “substantially louder than 100 decibels,” he said.

The system would be designed only to reach Brown’s College Hill campus, but “if things were quiet downtown, you might hear it,” he added.

A working group with representatives from the University, the Providence Emergency Management Agency and Providence’s police, fire and communications departments has met weekly over the summer, said Providence City Councilman Seth Yurdin, who represents Ward 1, which includes much of Brown’s campus.

Yurdin said the group has been meeting to address “mostly … technical requirements.” But the University will now have to work to win the support of neighbors on College Hill as the plan seeks public approval.

“I think there are a lot of questions that we need to make sure are answered,” Yurdin said, “about what happens when this siren goes off.”

Among those, he said, are when the sirens would be tested and how people would be advised what to do in the event of a real emergency.

Yurdin said he will introduce an ordinance Thursday night to the City Council that would provide the framework for approving the sirens and give PEMA the authority to handle the approval process.

The proposed ordinance also sets out specific requirements for what Yurdin called “public outreach,” mandating that communication with the neighborhood be coordinated with regular testing, according to a draft he provided to The Herald.

University administrators have also been busy this summer purchasing and learning how to use an electronic alert system that will make it possible to reach the entire community by e-mail, phone or text message simultaneously.

The MIR3 inCampusAlert system uses a database with the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of more than 16,000 people associated with the University to instantly send out emergency notifications.

The system also has the capability to ask the recipient to enter a response. “If we ask people, for example, to evacuate a building and wanted to know that people got the message,” Hunter said, “we could say, ‘Press one if you are evacuating now, press two if you need assistance.’ “

Hunter said the new alert system could be used in cases such as last year’s evacuation of Faunce House after a suspicious package was found.

The system can be used in different ways depending on the type of emergency, Hunter said. Notification by phone, he said, would probably only be used for extreme situations, while notifications that were less time-sensitive could be sent by e-mail.

The alert system’s database of phone numbers currently contains only students’ residence hall phone lines. But Hunter said he would e-mail students this week encouraging them to register their personal phone numbers – such as off-campus landlines or cellular phones – with the system, which can be marked as “private” and only for emergency use if desired.

“I think when people understand the nature of the message,” Hunter said, “and that what we’re trying to do is find a vehicle to contact them as quickly as possible, that they will (register).”

The system’s yearly subscription price, Hunter said, was a negotiated amount between the University and the vendor, which he declined to disclose except to say that it was “quite reasonable,” given the system’s capabilities.

Students can expect to see the system in use relatively early on, if only for a test, Hunter said.

In another attempt to boost security, the Department of Public Safety conducted situation training for its officers this summer, continuing work it began in December 2006, before the Virginia Tech shootings.

In joint exercises with the Providence Police Department, campus police officers practiced hostage situations and “active shooter situations” – defined as when an armed person has used deadly force and has access to additional victims – and learned to search and clear buildings and capture suspects.

The shootings in Blacksburg, Va., made the officers take the work even more seriously, said Brown Chief of Police Mark Porter.

“I think it made us more pro-active,” he said, adding that the tragedy at Virginia Tech had “enhanced our approach” and that the training overall was “extremely successful.”