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End Note

Timely Warning

A CIO's perspective on the value of a well planned and coordinated emergency response system
University Business, Jun 2008

ON FEBRUARY 20, A MEMO threatening violence and referencing <b>Virginia Tech</b> was found taped to a hallway wall at <b>Saint Peter's College</b> in Jersey City, N.J., spurring a five-hour campus lockdown. Emergency communication plans were activated effectively and 3,000-plus students, faculty, and staff were warned by text, e-mail, and website alerts.

People remained safe in their locations. Commuter students were turned away upon arrival. The campus community was then evacuated as the local police department conducted a room-by-room search. Although many were anxious, most students and parents were satisfied with the speed and level of communication, and there were no injuries.

I decided to start sending people home so we could re-create our operations.

I played a pivotal role in the college's emergency response action at the time of the event. A CIO's planning, internal partnering, and resourcefulness are key in managing a high-stress campus lockdown event. Remaining calm so you can think smart and act quick is the first step. Other important lessons:

<b>Stay focused.</b> One of my first concerns was to ensure that our IT staff were accounted for. My next concern was that our campus systems were not under threat. Were we operating smoothly and delivering the connectivity and infrastructure the campus needed? Soon after the initial alerts, people were swarming the halls and looking out the windows. With helicopters flying overhead and K-9 units arriving, it's easy to get caught up in it all.

<b>Use targeted communications.</b> An event like this produces anxiety for everyone on campus, so it's critical to provide just the right amount of information as quickly as you can. Through special funding offered by the Fidelity Foundation, Saint Peter's selected Privatel early last summer to provide text alerting services. We launched the system last fall, and by the spring semester's start, 950 students on campus had signed up for the service.

Just a few minutes after the February incident, the first e-mail alert went out. The message spread quickly as students shared information with their friends and family through calls or text forwarding.

<b>Eliminate your weaknesses.</b> More than 1,400 text messages were sent during each individual broadcast message. Students using major carriers like Verizon, Sprint, or AT&T received the messages almost immediately, but for others it took several hours. Our IT team is investigating the reason for the delay. It's not enough for us to say, "It's not our fault. Your carrier didn't deliver the message."

<b>Partner closely.</b> Our Office of Campus Safety has lead responsibility for managing an emergency situation on campus. IT had worked closely with Campus Safety to configure the emergency communication systems to be under their control. Once that process is triggered, IT's role is to monitor the communication infrastructure and to prevent disruptions in telephone, wireless, and campus network systems. All of this planning paid off.

<b>Think on your feet.</b> We received a threat that was not directed at a single target on campus, so we limited movement on campus as areas were being searched and secured. That meant keeping staff in their offices and students in dorms or classrooms until security deemed an area was clear. People were evacuated to the Recreation Center until the entire campus could be reopened.

Unfortunately, the evacuation area had limited connectivity, and when it came time to evacuate the IT offices, we were faced with moving staff to a place where they wouldn't be able to do their jobs. I made the decision to start sending people home so we could recreate our operations. I felt we could do a better job maintaining our operations remotely.

<b>Help people.</b> When technology does its job for people in crisis moments, it's highly rewarding. Listening to the radio coverage on my way home, I heard one of our students say that he felt safe because of the quick alerts and that his parents were happy with the way the campus had communicated with him.

It was the best thanks I could get. When I heard the gratitude in his voice, all the long hours, painstaking planning, and endless detail of our work fell into perspective. I pumped my fist in the air and even yelled out loud in my car in the middle of rush hour traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike! I was elated everyone was okay and that our solution was effective.

That night I couldn't have been happier. I had played a role in getting the systems in place to keep students safe and protected. That's a great feeling for a CIO.

<em>Stan Molinski is the chief information officer at Saint Peter's College (N.J.) and an employee of SunGard Higher Education. He is also a volunteer emergency responder in Westchester County, N.Y. He can be reached at</em>