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New emergency notification program for campus alerts

To improve MIT's ability to communicate rapidly with members of the community during an emergency, MIT emergency planners are asking students, faculty and staff to enter or update their emergency notification information at This information will only be used to alert students, faculty and staff of a life-safety or public-health emergency.

The impetus to gather complete information for everyone on campus follows the testing last August of a new emergency notification system designed to alert students, faculty and staff of an emergency via phone, text message and e-mail. The system--part of the comprehensive MIT Alert emergency communications program--dispatched phone calls and text messages to members of the MIT community for whom we had information. As part of the test, a broadcast e-mail was also sent to the entire campus.

"Based on what was learned from the test, we are implementing changes and, in particular, working to collect more cell-phone data from students and staff to facilitate future testing and enhancements of the MIT Alert system," said David Barber, Emergency and Business Continuity Planner in the Security and Emergency Management Office. "Our goal is to improve our ability to reach members of the community in an emergency in the quickest way possible."

Until very recently, university emergency management was thought of mostly in terms of mitigation of the potential for fires, laboratory accidents, emergencies in campus residence halls and crime on campus. But the universe of response requirements in a university setting has expanded rapidly in the last several years. MIT is actively upgrading its emergency management and response program as events around the country reveal more and more dimensions to protecting a campus community.

In recent years, MIT's Environment, Health and Safety Office (EHS), working closely with partner offices such as the MIT Police and Medical Departments, has been increasing its focus on issues related to the Institute's preparedness for extended outages and acute emergencies--from localized outages that affect a single floor or building (like the fire at One Broadway in December 2006)--to campus-wide disasters that might result from a hurricane, winter storm, major fire or a pandemic illness. The emergency structure consists of multiple layers connecting the Institute leadership to individual laboratories and residence halls, and is at the heart of emergency planning, communication, response and recovery efforts.

For most localized incidents, the Emergency Response Team--the EHS Management System network--and Emergency Preparedness Coordinators are sufficient to mitigate the situation. For larger-scale emergencies--recall the campus-wide power outage in 2004 and the campus-wide water outage in 2005--response and resources across a broader section of campus must be marshaled. In these instances, an Emergency Operations Center, consisting of representatives from key MIT operational areas, is activated to muster the resources of MIT to oversee and resolve impacts of emergencies affecting multiple portions of campus.

Over the next year, all MIT departments and offices will be asked to draw up local emergency communications plans to ensure that the Emergency Operations Center and the Security and Emergency Management Office can communicate with departmental decision-makers, if needed, and that all units have methods for keeping in contact with their faculty, staff and students. By being fully prepared, we can ensure a safe and orderly campus response in any emergency and protect MIT's most important assets: its people and research.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 7, 2008 (download PDF).

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