Emergency alert system loudly makes its debut

7,000 text messages accompany siren test

Monday, March 3, 2008

Correction appended.

At noon yesterday, as a knot of professors climbed the Faunce House steps for lunch and a few straggling students rushed to class in Sayles and Wilson halls, a high, clear tone rose over the Main Green, hung in the air for about fifteen seconds, and stopped.

Students, for the most part, continued on their way. Some eating outside stopped talking to gaze in the direction of the sound. Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron, crossing the Green with a colleague, paused briefly and continued into Faunce.

Campus officials hope to not have a campus emergency that would necessitate the use of the tone, broadcast by sirens atop three University buildings. Luckily, as a voice message following the sound made clear, yesterday’s alert was only a test.

In fact, this test was the first of the new siren system and the culmination of almost a year of work on the project. Administrators first broached the idea in the wake of the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a student gunman killed 32 people before taking his own life.

At that time, the University was already considering an electronic mass-notification system, said Vice President of Administration and Chief Risk Officer Walter Hunter. That discussion resulted in the purchase of a system from MIR3, Inc. – now in place – which can alert students through e-mail, text messages, voice messages and even fax.

After Virginia Tech, Hunter said, “We thought about some more traditional approaches toward alerting the community, and that’s when we started thinking about a siren.”

A working group with representatives from Brown, the Providence Emergency Management Agency and Providence’s police, fire and communications departments met weekly over the summer to hammer out technical requirements.

City Councilman Seth Yurdin drafted an ordinance to approve and regulate the system, which mandated community involvement in the process and placed the siren’s use under the authority of PEMA. “It’s really important to keep students safe but at the same time we have to make sure that whatever’s used has the corresponding procedures to keep the neighborhood in the loop,” he told the Providence Journal in a Sept. 6 article. Yurdin did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment for this story.

There was no organized opposition to the project, Hunter said, and after the law’s passage Brown set to work with the city to get the sirens, manufactured by Whelen Engineering Company, up and running.

This is only a test

“Brown just sent me a text!” exclaimed a student on the Faunce steps several minutes before the alert. “Brown siren test today at 12:00 noon,” it read. “This is only a test. There is no emergency.”

The text messages were only a small part of the media blitz launched by administrators in the days leading up to the test. Hunter sent an e-mail to the Brown community on Monday. Two days later, students were reminded by Morning Mail and the Providence Journal ran an article announcing the test. On Thursday, students received 9 a.m. e-mails from Brown Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety Mark Porter warning them again. At the same time, the city began calling local residents through its reverse 911 system to notify them of the test. And at 11:52 a.m., 7,000 text messages were sent through MIR3.

The constant reminders contributed to an air of anticipation. Many students felt the test itself didn’t live up.

“It was anti-climactic,” said Barbara Petersen ’10.

“That’s not that loud,” agreed Becca Coleman ’10. “I was ready to have my ears blasted off.”

All students interviewed by The Herald agreed that a siren system was a good idea, but some questioned its implementation. Many said the test was inaudible inside classrooms and residence halls, especially on Pembroke Campus. Few could understand the voice message that followed, which clarified that there was no emergency.

“I don’t know if it would be effective in an emergency situation. It wasn’t loud enough,” Petersen said.

Hunter said hearing the siren inside isn’t “as critical,” because “it’s primarily to get people from outside inside anyway.” Its primary message, he said, is, “There’s something serious. Go inside and get additional information.” In an emergency, that information would be provided by MIR3, which would be activated in conjunction with the siren.

According to Hunter, the University only envisions three scenarios in which the siren would be used: a hostile intruder on campus, a toxic chemical release nearby or a natural disaster such as a tornado.

Once activated, each siren sounds at 110 decibels. Hunter said Brown employees stationed at Davol Square – southeast of campus in the Jewelry District – and Brown Stadium – northwest in a residential neighborhood – both reported hearing the sound.

Securing consensus

In securing the siren’s approval from the city and preparing for Thursday’s test, Brown has been engaged in months of dialogue with its neighbors.

For the most part, College Hill Neighborhood Association President William Touret said, residents were ambivalent. “I don’t think anybody thought it was a great idea, but I don’t think anyone was … up in arms about it,” he said. “Nobody wants to do anything that might detract from prevention or saving lives” in a major emergency.

Administrators met with the College Hill and Fox Point neighborhood associations as well as local schools. Hunter said they encountered little opposition.

City oversight was an important factor in the CHNA’s decision not to oppose the project, Touret said. “I would certainly rather have the city overseeing it than letting Brown put in its own system that it designed – and then lets say Wheeler School puts in a system of its own design, and then Moses Brown puts in a system of its own design, RISD puts in one of its own design, and they’re all different, incompatible and going off at different times.”

In preparation for the test, the University sent e-mails to neighbors and distributed flyers door-to-door.

Touret was pleasantly surprised by the tone itself. “The decibel level was less than I expected,” he said. “And believe me, I’m not urging them to turn it up.”

Alarming Thayer

Certain locations on and around campus were affected far more than others by the test. Several blocks of Thayer Street located across from the Brown Office Building, which has a siren mounted on its roof, were among them. Though the University had distributed flyers informing local businesses about the test twice in the past month, many workers said they’d had no prior warning, and some felt unnerved.

“It was too intense,” said a Tealuxe employee who called himself Buttons Downard. “It does need to be heard, but this was like, ‘A bomb’s coming, and you’re going to die.’ “

Manager Jen Chaves added, “I was looking around, like, ‘are we supposed to be running somewhere?'”

“It was pretty post-apocalyptic,” Katrina Clark, a customer, chimed in.

Nice Slice employee Chris Annunziato was taken aback by the sound. “We thought it was part of a song at first; then we got bummed that it wasn’t, and then we all agreed that Brown was terrorizing us,” he said. “It’s audio terrorism.”

Due to an editing error, an article in Friday’s Herald (“Emergency alert system loudly makes it debut,” Feb. 29) referred to Buttons Downard as male. Downard is female.

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