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Sound the Alarm

Despite the new technology of emergency communications, perhaps it's time to reconsider an old standby.

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Almost nothing grabs our attention like a good, old-fashioned alarm.

Alarms jolt us awake in the morning. They let us know when someone is breaking into our cars. They alert us when a building is on fire or even when a pot roast is overcooked.

Similarly, in times of emergency, simple sound alarms can provide much-needed early warnings to communities facing critical threats, as was the case at Virginia Tech last week.

Tech already has such an alarm, a series of four high-decibel sirens installed in April 2006 to "provide instant notification to students, faculty and staff of imminently dangerous conditions," according to the emergency-preparedness section of the university's Web site.

When activated, the "early warning siren system" emits a three-minute blast intended to advise anyone within earshot to seek immediate shelter inside the nearest building, and then check the university Web site, hotline, radio station or cable channel for more information. Once a crisis has ended, another 30-second siren would be activated and followed with an "all clear" announcement over a combined public address system.

The university activated its system during the tragic day of April 16, says Zachary Adams, Tech's co-director of Environmental Health and Safety Services.

Although Adams wouldn't confirm when the siren was sounded — he referred Style to the college's media relations office — early media reports indicated that it may have happened after the second round of shootings was reported, after 10 a.m. — not long after university officials sent the now-notorious e-mail advisories to students and faculty.

The university faces intense criticism that the e-mails were too late and ineffective in warning the campus of the earlier shootings and of the gunman's potential lingering presence. Because many faculty and students were in their cars or already seated in classrooms, and not near their computer screens, it was clear the e-mails would reach only a limited audience.

Many people advocating new ways of quickly reaching populations of threatened communities, though, are still relying on evolving technology for solutions. Even at Tech, President Charles W. Steger says the university likely will install a system that reaches out to students' cell phones with voice or text messages if another crisis arises. Such systems, however, have major constraints.

I administered a similar system a few times in recent years while serving on the public information staff for the City of Richmond's Office of Emergency Management. That system, often erroneously identified as "reverse 911," dials out with prerecorded messages to pre-identified land lines. It can call those within a very small area, such as a few city blocks — a strategy that would have been helpful in an event such as 2004's Broad Street fire — or to the entire list of phone numbers in Verizon's database.

Unfortunately, the number of call-out lines is limited, so notifications rarely are instantaneous. For citywide calls, they can take hours or even days to complete. These are good systems that have their place, but their value clearly diminishes in large-scale alerts.

Another drawback to a cell-phone-based plan is that the phones are not always turned on, especially on college campuses, and not everyone has a cell phone. As an adjunct professor in Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Mass Communications, I tell students on the first day of the semester that all electronic devices must be switched off during class to avoid distractions. This is a common rule that many professors even write into class syllabuses.

Sirens, however, have no such limitations. In contrast to cell-phone alerts, civil-defense sirens reach the lowest common denominator — they can reach the entire population within a target area immediately and without fail. They are loud, unavoidable and require nothing of people hearing it but that they take cover.

First used across the country during World War II to inform residents in heavily populated communities of air raids, sirens later were expanded as a tool to warn the public during potential nuclear attacks and impending natural disasters.

Since then, many air-raid sirens have been phased out of service because of the implementation of newer technology such as the Emergency Alert System (EAS) — formerly known as the Emergency Broadcast System — which goes out over radio and television signals. The EAS also has its limitations, however; one must be listening to the radio or watching television at the precise moment a warning is broadcast in order to receive it.

Sirens could be ripe for a comeback. In the wake of the Tech tragedy, many universities — including VCU (see sidebar) — are now evaluating the appropriateness of such systems for their own campuses. Sirens could be useful in other areas of the city, such as downtown, where several buildings have been identified as the most likely targets of terrorism.

And while the use of sirens may make the most sense in smaller, more contained areas such as college campuses, business parks and dense residential areas, many major U.S. cities still have siren systems in place, and others are finding that implementation in large geographic areas isn't necessarily impractical. For example, Marion County, Ind., signed a $5 million contract last month for the installation of 170 sirens to help protect the 860,000 people within its approximately 403 square miles (the city of Richmond, by comparison, has nearly 200,000 citizens residing within 63 square miles).

So if using sirens makes so much sense, and Tech used them last week, why wasn't further tragedy averted after the first shootings occurred?

First, the Tech system is quite new. In fact, the first siren tests there were conducted just over a year ago. Students still may not be fully indoctrinated regarding what the alarm sounds like, what it means or what they are supposed to do when they hear it.

It's time to bring them up to speed.

Another likely possibility is that university officials just didn't think of using the sirens quickly enough. Under the university's emergency-response plan, the first round of shootings should have warranted a Level II response, and the second event easily would have qualified as a Level III event, which is the most severe type of situation identified. In either of those cases, the plan says that officials are supposed to activate an emergency operations center and begin communicating with the public through the news media and other means.

Strangely, the emergency plan — a 24-page document specifically written to eliminate subjective judgments and guide officials during the acute crisis phase — seems not to have been updated since May 2005, almost a year before the sirens were installed. Emergency plans are all but useless if they aren't regularly updated.

The lesson for emergency managers in organizations and communities of all sizes is that while technology is dynamic and seems on the surface to be fast and flawless, sometimes low-tech is best. Simplicity in communication is as important regarding the method of delivery as is the choice of wording.

Now it's time for me to join the "what if" crowd with a side question. What if Tech had gone into full-alert mode and cranked up its siren system to peak volume last Monday right after the first shootings at West Ambler Johnston Hall were reported? If the shooter had heard the sirens while compiling his package for NBC news and had been made aware of the emergency response along with everyone else, would he still have been so bold as to load his weapons, walk back out onto the sprawling campus and storm into Norris Hall?

We'll never know. S

Siren Buzz

Within hours of the Virginia Tech shootings, Virginia Commonwealth University was reconsidering the siren.

"This is a pretty inexpensive way to get people's attention," says John Bennett, senior vice president for finance and administration at VCU.

The university began looking at installing sirens more than two years ago at a cost of between $25,000 and $30,000 apiece, Bennett says. The university decided to wait, however, when the city began exploring a siren system for the Shockoe Bottom area in the wake of Tropical Storm Gaston in 2005, thinking the two systems might overlap.

Richmond officials recently decided against installing sirens in the Bottom. But after the shootings in Blacksburg, sirens are back on the table at VCU.

"What the siren would do is get everybody's attention," Bennett says. "The siren would be a signal that something major is going on."

The sirens the university considered more than two years ago would sit on towers, possibly as high as 100 feet. The sirens' capacity was 128 decibels, enough to deafen nearly everyone on campus. But at 80 decibels, Bennett says, a siren in Monroe Park could be heard west of the Boulevard.

Coupled with a public-awareness campaign, the sirens would ideally send students and faculty a message to check the university Web site, their e-mail and possibly text messages being sent via cell phone. The beauty of the siren is that it's unfettered by advertising, a concern with text message systems and e-mail.

"It's sort of a mindless tool," Bennett says, "useful in that all [the siren] does is get people's attention."

After studying ways to alert businesses and residents to floods in the Bottom, Richmond decided sirens weren't necessary, says Britt Drewes, public information manager for the city's Department of Public Works.

The city, in collaboration with the state emergency management department and the National Weather Service, is installing in the Bottom an emergency warning system that's set off when rising waters trigger a rain gauge in the Shockoe Valley Creek.

It decided to forgo the siren component, Drewes says, because it could have potential economic impact if triggered prematurely.

"If the siren were to go off, either accidentally or as a test along those lines, and that area was evacuated, there could be an economic-development impact," she says, which could be a "legal liability there for the city." — Scott Bass

Bill Farrar, a public-relations consultant and adjunct professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, served for eight years as communications specialist to several Richmond city agencies, including the Office of Emergency Management. He has 14 years of local government experience and also spent several years as a daily newspaper reporter.

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