Emergency messaging effectiveness questioned

Illini Alert, a system of communication via text messages and e-mails that are sent out to registered students and faculty in emergency situations, was activated to notify the University community about severe weather around 7 p.m. Friday.

It was the first time the alert system was used to warn of hazardous weather conditions. The text messages said, “Emergency! Tornado expected to hit UI campus. Seek shelter indoors immediately and turn to local media for details.”

As it was, a tornado never touched down on campus or in Champaign-Urbana. There was damage in the area due to the high winds and heavy rains. Regardless of the result, though, Todd Short, the director of emergency planning in the Division of Public Safety, said the decision to send out an alert is simple. It’s all based on the local tornado sirens.

“If the sirens sound for Champaign County, we send out a full campus alert,” Short said, adding the public safety branch in the police department makes the decision to sound the sirens.

The reason for what some may deem as drastic wording in the text message – “Emergency! Tornado expected to hit UI campus” – was that the experts thought there was a good chance a tornado would hit. Short said storm spotters in Savoy, Champaign, Tolono and Philo “observed a wall cloud … that had the rotation in it that was lowering, which is a probable tornado.”

Short said about 33,000 text messages and 116,000 e-mails were being sent out simultaneously. Many students who are signed up for the service likely weren’t on campus but still received the message. That’s something that cannot be avoided, Short said.

“We can’t subdivide a full-campus alert, so it’s an all-or-nothing proposition,” Short said.

Mike Corn, chief privacy and security officer in the Office of the CIO, oversees the technical side of the Illini Alert. He said if some registered users of the service didn’t receive the warning message, the problem did not originate with the Illini Alert system.

“999 times out of 1,000, when a message isn’t received, we’ve sent it,” Corn said. “We hand it off to whoever your carrier is, and at that point, who knows? When we send an e-mail, it leaves our system and we have a record showing it was sent out of our system at a certain time. We can’t guarantee it will show up in your inbox.”

Corn said text messages are even harder to track because there’s no way to know what happens once they are sent out to carriers. But, he added, almost all messages are correctly sent out.

Even though a tornado didn’t hit, Short said he was “150 percent” certain the right call had been made.

“We have to err on the side of caution,” Short said. “Anybody that’s lived in the Midwest and has to deal with tornado activity (knows) it’s impossible for us to predict the path of a storm … The last thing we want to do is fail to take an action that would advocate personal protective actions by the people that are counting on us to notify them of a potential emergency.”