On cold, snowy mornings of the past, students would hunker down next to their radios to listen to Salty Brine announce school cancellations. If URI was on the list, it meant a day of campus snowball fights, sliding down hills on dining hall trays, and maybe even catching up on studies. However, commuters and those who lived down-the-line worried about missing the announcements.
As the decades passed, TV, improved telephone software, and the Internet provided additional ways to communicate to campus members. Then, within the last year, college administrators across the country confronted a brutal reality—outbreaks of campus violence made it essential to reach people in the quickest, most direct manner.
Enter the URI EmergencyALERT system, which allows news and instructions to be broadcast to personal cell phones, work and home phone lines, as well as to personal and URI emails of students, faculty, and staff in the order that they choose. And yes, it will even be used to send class cancellation announcements in the event of snowstorms.
Launched last November, URI EmergencyALERT followed five months of work by campus leaders to assess the University’s emergency response and communications programs and equipment.
The effort began three days after the shootings last spring at Virginia Tech when President Robert L. Carothers convened a meeting of campus leaders involved with safety, security, and communications. At the meeting, Carothers established subcommittees to determine if additional systems were needed.
“As we know from the events at Virginia Tech, time is of the essence when a threat exists on campus,” Carothers said. “That horrible day in Virginia, and more recent shootings at Delaware State University and the University of Memphis, have only underscored our need to use methods and equipment that will allow us to communicate to our community in the quickest, most efficient means possible.”
As University officials conducted their evaluation, they confirmed that URI already had a comprehensive emergency response program with various overlapping systems. Personnel upgrades, expansion, and communications improvements were made in the campus Police Department. About 50 security cameras had been installed in major parking and pedestrian areas, and mutual aid agreements set up with the State Police and Narragansett and South Kingstown Police Departments. In addition, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) provides safe travel with a comprehensive transit system on campus and in surrounding local communities.
The University’s campus Safe Ride Program provides late-night transport-ation for students, Parking Services offers a motorist assist line titled Call MA, and safety and security education programs are held regularly in the residence halls. The Department of Communications & Marketing manages a multi-layered communications system, including the University Web site; email notification, campus voicemail system, call-in lines with recorded messages that can be accessed simultaneously by multiple callers, and media broadcasts.
The University is in the process of augmenting its blue light emergency phone system by installing an audio broadcasting capability and flashing lights. The flashing lights would be activated and a brief message would be broadcast in the event of an immediate threat. Before the system is operational, campus community members will be informed about what sites and resources would provide additional information. There are 68 exterior blue light stanchions on the Kingston Campus, five at the Narragansett Bay Campus, and five at the W. Alton Jones Campus. In addition, URI has 28 exterior wall and building mounted call boxes.
The Division of Student Affairs, which for years has paid close attention to and intervened on behalf of students facing major crises, has established a new Critical Response Intervention Team that meets once every three weeks to discuss students who are dealing with difficult issues. “We discuss individuals and their needs as well as incidents, what we did, and what other steps we might have taken. We also look ahead to any big public events that pose potential security and safety risks,” said Thomas R. Dougan, vice president for Student Affairs.
In addition to Dougan and Fran Cohen, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students, the team is made up of representatives from Health Services, the Counseling Office, Campus Police, Housing and Residential Life, and Academic Affairs.
URI Emergency ALERT
The EmergencyALERT system was the result of work by J. Vernon Wyman, assistant vice president of business services; and Robert Drapeau, director of Public Safety; and personnel in Information Technology Services. The system uses services by MIR3, a San Diego company that provides dissemination of urgent information to and from any communication devices. Leading universities, businesses, and government agencies—including the Pentagon—employ MIR3 for emergency communication systems.
”Who wouldn’t want the convenience of learning from your cell phone while snug in bed that classes are canceled?” Wyman asked. “We’ve seen over the last decade the exponential growth in cell phone use and accompanying text messaging features, and now we can get information directly to people and get responses from them.”
But first the University had to entice people to register for the program.
“We knew the system would only be effective if all segments of the University community provided their current and accurate emergency contact information,” said Linda A. Acciardo, director of communications and marketing. “So we are running an awareness campaign encouraging individuals to provide their information through eCampus, URI’s online record-keeping system. As an incentive students who registered before Nov. 21, 2007, were eligible to win one of three Ipods.”
“We have looked closely at our personnel and our systems that respond to community members who are in crisis to make sure they get the help they need,” Carothers said. “Our first responders, police, security and ambulance service, have examined and updated their procedures to address these critical issues. But most importantly, we have come together as a community to address violence and its devastating consequences on college campuses and beyond.”
For a complete description of University emergency notification policies and procedures click on uri.edu/emergency. By David Lavallee ’79, M.P.A. ’87