In the minutes after shots were fired early last Tuesday morning at Copabanana on 40th and Spruce streets, thousands of students and other University personnel found their cell phones vibrating or ringing with a UPennAlert informing them of the danger in the area. But what many may not realize is that the UPennAlert that was issued last week was the product of a process that began with its inception more than seven years ago.
Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush explained that the need for electronic emergency alert technology at college campuses first came to light in the aftermath of the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which left 32 dead and 17 wounded.
Before the UPennAlert Emergency Notification System existed, members of the Penn community would usually find out about emergencies through an email sent from DPS, word of mouth, the network of police and security responders or simply from being near the scene.
The Virginia Tech incident effectively marked the birth of the emergency alert technology industry, Rush said.
“As the technology matured, universities learned more ... and [Penn] did a lot of research on different companies,” she added.
With the help of Mitchell Yanak , director of communications for the Division of Public Safety, the UPennAlert Emergency Notification System was up and running just seven months after the Virginia Tech massacre.
DPS performed the first UPennAlert campus test on Nov. 1, 2007. As The Daily Pennsylvanian reported on Nov. 5, 2007, “95.3 percent of the targeted individuals receiv[ed] a notification either by phone, e-mail or text-message.” As part of the drill, “DPS simulated a hazardous materials incident in the Caster Building” and the system notified individuals “who either worked or had class in the building,” according to the Nov. 5 article.
A little over a year after the initial test of the system, the first UPennAlert was issued on Dec. 19, 2008 in response to a rape that occurred at an off-campus apartment located on the 4400 block of Spruce Street. The DP reported on Nov. 9, 2010 that the perpetrator of the incident, serial rapist Domenique Wilson , forced himself into the apartment with a gun and a knife. Wilson proceeded to hold the residents, two female Penn students, against their will, binding their hands together with duct tape. Wilson also raped one of the students.
In relation to that incident, 71,115 emails and text messages were sent out in 10 minutes, DPS said.
In November 2010, Wilson was convicted of 14 charges related to the Dec. 19 incident as well as another home invasion and rape that he committed in Center City in 2008. Prior to his November 2010 conviction, Wilson was also convicted of crimes related to a February 2009 incident in which he attacked three Lock Haven University students, sexually assaulting two of them.
When the system was first implemented, UPennAlerts were not without hiccups.
Originally, UPennAlert recipients were notified of an emergency by three modes of communication — email, text message and voicemail. The voicemail component, however, was eliminated after many people called the PennComm Operations Center back instead of just listening to the alert message themselves.
Since PennComm is responsible for communicating with officers as they respond to situations, the fact that “PennComm was being inundated with phone calls about the UPennAlert” had the potential to “negatively effect the tactical response” of DPS personnel,” Rush said.
“We know now that text messaging is the quickest and most preferred method of receipt among students,” Rush added.
As smartphones became more prevalent on campus, a link to the DPS website was added to the UPennAlert messages. This new development also revealed the need for some other technological adjustments at DPS.
“One of the first times that the link was included in the message, the surge that was created by so many people clicking on the link all at once caused the DPS website to crash,” Rush said.
To remedy this situation, DPS worked closely with Information Systems & Computing to expand the bandwidth of the DPS website so that the crashes are no longer an issue.
Since the early days of UPenn Alerts, the system has largely been streamlined.
Currently, students receive all UPennAlerts that are issued. Faculty and other University employees receive the alerts between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays, unless they are in a direct student support role, such as House Dean. This summer, DPS will be starting a new project that will allow faculty and other staff to opt-in to receive alerts at all times, Rush said.
This year marked the first time that DPS issued UPennAlerts for school closings due to snow.
“This year we had an exceptional winter and the University considered the snow to be a safety issue,” Rush added.
In addition to the UPennAlert text message and email notification system, the University retains the Penn Siren Outdoor System , a network of 19 speaker systems that are placed throughout campus. Rush said that in the event of an immediate life-threatening condition, such as a tornado, messages could be transmitted through the speakers as well as the public address systems in newer buildings like the Singh Center for Nanotechnology or the newer wings of the Law School.
The University runs regular tests on PennSOS, but the system has never actually had to be put to use.
“The value of PennSOS is that it is an instantaneous communication system that we can use in a situation where every minute is important,” Rush said.
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