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UI making changes to HawkAlert

BY NICOLE KARLIS | MARCH 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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When phones simultaneously buzz around campus with a text message from an unfamiliar number, University of Iowa students can usually name the sender— HawkAlert.

The emergency-notification system — which has been alerting the university community since 2007 via text, phone, and e-mail — is undergoing several changes set to be complete within the next month.

These tweaks come after HawkAlert has received criticism for inefficient and confusing messages during crime-related emergencies, most recently after an inmate escaped from the UI Hospitals and Clinics in December 2010.

Officials are now working to better prepare dispatchers to send out a HawkAlert during more unexpected situations as well as get the message out to more people quickly.

But the relatively new technology isn’t going to be perfect, said David Visin, an associate director of the UI police.

“I don’t know what people’s expectations are — if they expect instant messaging in a perfect world, I don’t think technology is there yet,” he said. “I think we are doing the best we can with what technology has to offer.”

All members of UI police are trained every six months to use the system, with the last training on Jan. 14, Visin said. They also send out practice alerts within the department weekly.

But these training procedures are being reworked to include more specific scenarios for dispatchers to react to.

“I think it’s just good practice,” he said. “It’s just to do a better job and make quality improvement.
Officials are also increasing the number of ways people can receive a HawkAlert message.

“You know, when we send out a message, we do the best we can,” Visin said. “It very much depends on the people, students, faculty, and staff choosing their right HawkAlert information as much as it does for us to send them out. It’s a cooperation issue.”

Roughly 50,000 people receive e-mail alerts, and 17,000 are notified via cell phone. That means only an estimated 25 to 40 percent of students, staff, and faculty are signed up to receive HawkAlert text which, officials say, is the most efficient way to communicate during an emergency.

Authorities want to raise that number to 90 percent, said Tysen Kendig, the UI vice president for Strategic Communication.

“We’re always working with UI police to make sure we’re using the system appropriately and in the most timely fashion,” Kendig said.

Alerts via Facebook and RSS feeds, announcements via fire alarms, display messages on university televisions, and a website exclusively for emergency updates are all also part of the plans.

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Controversial HawkAlerts

The UI received criticism during its most recent crime-related HawkAlert sent out after Anthony Koehlhoeffer, an inmate from the Jefferson County Jail, reportedly escaped from the UIHC on Dec. 14, 2010, and led police on a 19-hour manhunt across eastern Iowa after allegedly assaulting a UI student and carjacking three vehicles.

UI students weren’t notified about the incident until 10 hours after his escape.

“I didn’t feel the delay was acceptable,” Charles Green, the assistant vice president for the UI police, told The Daily Iowan on Dec. 16. “I would have preferred the HawkAlert to come out earlier.”

And looking back, Visin agreed officials would have handled the situation differently.

“Doing it again, we would have erred on the side of caution [and sent one out earlier],” he said.

Officials delayed sending the message because they had reason to believe Koehlhoeffer had left Johnson County, he said.

Kendig said one fault during the incident was a communication problem within UI Strategic Relations and the UI police.

“The internal communication process was lacking a little bit,” he said. “We’ve addressed that situation and are better prepared for a similar one in the future.”

In 2008, the HawkAlert was scrutinized after alerting UI students of a possible gunman on campus. In fact, local resident Steven Sueppel had killed his wife and four children earlier that morning, but he didn’t use a gun, and there was no indication he was near campus.

Visin said officials were being cautious and sending out what information they had at the time.

“So we’re here,” he said. “It’s 6 in the morning. We hear he shot and killed his wife and kids with a gun and he’s possibly on campus. So what do you do? You put out your best. If that happens to be wrong, you try to fix it.”

Both Visin and Kendig have said the future changes are not related the UIHC escapee incident.

The plan will be completed within the next month and students can expect to see these changes during the next emergency, Kendig said.

How does the HawkAlert work?

When an emergency occurs, the UI police’s watch commander at the time is responsible for deciding whether to send out a HawkAlert. “Any incident that might have major consequences to the university” is usually the rule of thumb, Visin said.

If an alert is deemed appropriate, a dispatcher sends out the initial message, and then Strategic Communications is responsible for crafting any subsequent notifications UI police decide to send.

The HawkAlert is hosted by software, Blackboard Connect, and costs $1 per UI student, staff, and faculty, per year.

Regarding HawkAlert’s inability to reach all of the university community, one UI official said that’s OK. The alert is not meant to reach everybody, said Steven Fleagle, the UI chief information officer.

“It’s a lot of messages to send out,” he said, noting that 90 percent of the phone calls and e-mails get out within 15 minutes.

During the last HawkAlert, on Feb. 1, to alert students about the snow day, 84.8 percent of students, staff, and faculty received the message via phone, e-mail, or text.

That percentage, Fleagle said, is nothing to be worried about.

“We can’t always guarantee they will get out quickly,” he said. “The HawkAlert is never intended to communicate to 100 percent of the people. The idea is to get the message out to as many people as possible.”

For the remaining 10 percent of those who won’t immediately receive the message, Fleagle said they should rely on “word of mouth.”

Educating the public

This “word of mouth” strategy is not abnormal. Virginia Tech University also relies on students telling other students about a situation.

“What we try to do is educate … if you get a message, you should tell someone else,” said Michael Mulhare of emergency management at Virginia Tech. “You’ll never have a 100 percent delivery, a message to every person.”

The Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 sparked schools and universities across the country to build or improve emergency-notification systems.

“Our incident and Northern Illinois essentially developed an industry,” Mulhare said.

Virginia Tech alerts students through 460 electronic message boards on campus, setting desktop alerts, broadcasting the message over campus speakers, and displaying it on its webpage — in addition to texts, phone calls, and e-mails.

Kendig said educating the campus about its HawkAlert options is also what officials plan to do in the future.

“Raising awareness — that’s what people are talking about when they speak for education,” he said. “We want to educate people what to do in a critical crisis.”


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