Universities Show How Emergency Communications Have Evolved

How universities kept communication alive during Superstorm Sandy.

by / August 1, 2013

Steve Keleman, director of the Rutgers Office of Emergency Management in New Jersey, was forced to get creative when Superstorm Sandy hammered the East Coast in October 2012, knocking out power to the university campus and complicating traditional disaster communication methods.

Keleman and his staff knew they needed to reach people on devices that may have still been operating after building power and computer systems failed. “With the power out, most didn’t have the ability to access their email, and we needed to find other ways of putting that [information] out,” he said.

Rutgers’ Office of Emergency Management earned praise last year for its vigilant use of social media. The university, composed of three campuses and more than 58,000 students, used the Internet and common social networking platforms to keep them safe by providing important information and updates about the storm. Rutgers’ home page was modified into a central hub, directing visitors to emergency updates about each campus. The page for each campus contained information and links on weather updates, emergency procedures, and class and campus closures. Chancellor Philip Yeagle hosted a live blog, posting his own updates.

Social media channels broadened the messages’ scope. The school’s Facebook and Twitter pages had similar updates, but multiple Twitter accounts allowed Rutgers to disseminate messages more frequently and widely. Emergency management staff could also monitor general Twitter feeds to track data on Sandy in the news.

Students and faculty members had to rely on their cellphones and text messaging to receive updates and view Web pages and social media feeds when the power to their buildings and dorms went down.

“Some of the individuals who had issues — the issue was either their carrier or them not having power at home — unless they could get wireless, they were without communications, so they had to rely on cell and text messaging,” Keleman said.   

Mounting Pressure

Social media was one part of a large communication network. College police forces used Nixle, a free communications system that sends mass messages by email, text and the Web, and other staff used the Rutgers Emergency Notification System to send emergency texts to phones. The power outage hindered the ability of some of these messages to be read by those trying to access information on computer systems inside buildings.

“When we lost power, that’s when we knew that no one mode of communicating was 100 percent,” Keleman said. “We couldn’t rely solely on email, solely on cellphones, solely on text or social media. We needed to rely on all of them.”

Keleman coordinates the resources that are used for emergency communications at the university. Sandy put him and the roughly 35 members of the EOC under intense pressure. They had to deliver messages to students and faculty in spite of trouble communicating with the outside world.

“Once the power went out and communication ties went down, we had to rely on people outside who were telling us how it is because the TVs were down,” Keleman said. “Unless you had a radio that you could put on and listen to the reports coming over it, you had to rely on people out in the field. We couldn’t watch the Weather Channel or any of the media outlets that provide you data. Conference calls became very important.”

Social media allowed members of the communications team to reach people more easily, but they had to ensure that the messages were accurate and worthwhile.

“We had individuals monitoring Twitter and the social feeds to make sure that, if there were any inaccuracies, we could correct them,” Keleman said. “If someone retweeted or posted something back, we were making sure that it wasn’t something that wasn’t correct.”

Staff began sending messages before Sandy struck in late October and ceased daily communications around Nov. 5, long after the storm’s worst had subsided. At that time, some parts of campus still didn’t have power.

“We curtailed classes all the way up until Nov. 5,” Keleman said. “We had to tell people to come to work, check their buildings, look for damage [and] make sure the buildings were safe.”

A Different Approach

Roughly 65 miles away, the University of Pennsylvania handled Sandy very differently. Staff avoided social media and relied heavily on the UPennAlert Emergency Notification System, which notifies members of the university and surrounding community through mobile devices, digital displays and siren and public address systems.

According to Mitchell Yanak, the director of technology and emergency communications, the university wasn’t confident in social media’s ability to deliver messages clearly and reliably. The staff used MIR3, which offers emergency notification methods through a hosted platform supported by multiple backup servers.

“When you have an emergency like that, even social media is overwhelmed with a lot of messages and texts, and we were more comfortable and confident going through our vendor who has three sites throughout the U.S.,” he said. 

Yanak and Maureen Rush, the university’s vice president for public safety, credited the university’s planning process for a relatively smooth crisis management situation.

“I think the difference for this hurricane was the fact that there was so much advance hype about it,” Rush said. “We were very fortunate. In Philadelphia, we basically were spared. New York City was devastated; the Jersey Shore was devastated. So we were very concerned and very nervous as we rode out the storm.”

University of Pennsylvania staff members held several meetings about a week in advance of Sandy to plan their crisis management efforts. The entire university, including President Amy Gutmann’s team and the public safety and crisis management teams, were prepared to cancel classes for two days during the storm.

“This was the first time we used UPenn Alert to say that the university would not be operating for two full days, and we sent that through text and email,” Rush said.

Preparing for the Future

Sandy is just a memory for the universities today, and both administrations recommend vigilant crisis planning for others that will experience future storms.

“Obviously your crisis management plan is absolutely imperative,” said Rush, who added that everyone involved should know what they’re supposed to do when the worst happens. “It’s not just one division; it’s not just public safety. It’s facilities, and it’s student life and the college houses.”

Rutgers runs emergency exercises regularly to prepare for disasters. “We try every year, to have a full-scale exercise where we put a scenario out there,” Keleman said. “We have people responding to it, and we feed them the information to get them in the habit of putting out the message and practicing it.”

The university’s execution of those strategies appears to have paid off. CKSyme.org, a communications consultancy, gave Rutgers an A for its handling of crisis communications during Sandy. The administration kept all campuses updated and connected through the website and social media platforms. Only a few minor things kept the school from getting an A+, like a lack of links back to the main website from its social media posts. However, Keleman said the emergency management staff plans to remedy this.

“The biggest thing I’m proud of is the way our emergency operations center and the personnel assigned to it function, and we keep getting better and better,” he said.

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Emergency Management magazine.

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