AlertWave notification system a work in progress

By CiaraShook

An alarm sounded Feb. 18 in campus buildings including the 33 E. Congress Parkway Building and the Music Center, 1014 S. Michigan Ave. Students, faculty and staff, confused by the tone, left the buildings.

What they were actual hearing was a test of the AlertWave system, adopted by the college in late 2008. Bob Koverman, associate vice president of Campus Safety and security, who joined Columbia’s administration last spring, has been overseeing activation of the system, which is designed to send out messages in the event of an emergency.

“I like that the campus has put [the system] in place,” said David Barron, a junior music composition major. “But sometimes it’s not clear what it’s trying to tell you”

Baron’s complaint is not unique. Many on campus are not aware that the AlertWave system has a different signal and purpose from the fire system. But Koverman said that it’s easy to differentiate the two.

“The AlertWave system will always have an audible message to it, the fire system will only have a tone,” Koverman said. “If you hear the tone, always evacuate. If you hear the AlertWave system, it alerts you a message is coming. Listen to the message before you do something.”

Unlike the fire alarm system,  AlertWave is for natural disasters, shooters, or the campus closing at an irregular time, such as the campus closing on Feb. 9 at 5 p.m., due to inclement weather.

AlertWave warns of an emergency by using a variety of media including a strobe light, an LED screen with alpha-numeric messaging and audio message, explaining to listeners what is going on.

“The idea, obviously, is to get to all of your senses, whether it’s sight or sound, so you know the event is taking place,” Koverman said.

He said it is important to pay attention to the message because it may not mean to evacuate, but to stay in the building.

“If we had an active shooter in the building, we wouldn’t want people in the hallways,” Koverman said. “The message would say something to the affect of, ‘This is a shelter in place, please stay where you are.’ This will provide you with specific direction.”

Koverman said a number of messages have been preprogrammed to send messages floor-by-floor or building-by-building, giving specific instructions.

John Murray, assistant to the chair in the Science and Math Department, said the system has worked well so far but may still need some kinks worked out.

“I’ve gotten the phone call, but you do have to register for that, so if you haven’t registered, it would be a problem getting informed about this,” Murray said.

Koverman said Safety and Security is doing more to inform the faculty and staff of what to do in the event of an emergency, such as holding training sessions and announcing via e-mail when Safety and Security would test the system.

“We have a lot more education to do for the whole campus in terms of how to respond to varieties of different kinds of emergencies, which a challenge for us because we have 26 different buildings,” Koverman said. “We’ve learned some things that need to be corrected with the system, but in the event we have an emergency, we know the system will function.”

Murray suggested students sign up for Send Word Now, the e-mail and text messaging service that alerts students in the event of an emergency. Students can sign up for Send Word Now by updating their emergency contact information through their Oasis account. Murray said the service is optional at student registration, but should be necessary.

“I asked everyone in my class, and they’ve signed up,” Murray said. “So people are signing up, but people could have missed out.”