In early September, Hurricane Florence caused more than $17 billion of property damage and economic loss as winds of up to 140mph battered North and South Carolina. Millions of people were evacuated and a state of emergency declared as more than 35 inches of rain fell within two weeks.
During the storm, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) managed to keep operations running thanks to its crisis communication team and a mass notification system called Rave Alert. MUSC had implemented the system in 2014 to send notifications to the 23,400 members of its campus community, which then evolved into communications during life safety incidents such as active shooters, earthquakes, and severe weather.
Fortunately, the crisis communications team had a well-tested emergency response plan, which it activated on September 9th - five days before Hurricane Florence made landfall. Using Rave Alert to ensure maximum coverage, the team sent out three-times-daily messages discussing the impending hurricane and providing community members with resources to help them prepare and stay safe.
During the height of the hurricane, the team changed the focus of the messages to provide real-time transportation updates and traffic reports - in one case from a car on the side of the road. Twenty-nine community-wide messages were sent during the course of the week using Rave Alert, making a total of 678,600, plus further messages to members of the community who remained on campus.
Group Segmentation Helps Keep Community Informed
One of capabilities that can help during a storm of this magnitude is group segmentation. This feature enables vast databases to be split into groups of individuals depending on their role, location, or other attribute. In the case of MUSC, about one quarter of the campus community remained on site during Hurricane Florence - some for as long as 96 hours - and during this time Rave Alert helped assure students of their safety and keep them informed of any relevant changes or updates for the area.
According to Heather Woolwine, who is MUSC's Public Affairs and Media Relations Director, staff on site during the storm were sent separate notifications about sleeping accommodations, complementary meals, and off-duty activities such as movies and karaoke to stave off boredom and relieve stress and anxiety. These alerts were separate from the weather notifications, and were customized for the appropriate recipients.
Heather noted the importance of supplying information came from a reliable source. “We need to anticipate the questions people will have, know the information that people will want to know, and evaluate that the information they want to know is appropriate coming from us as the source," she said. "We need to have a reliable delivery system and that's where Rave comes in".
How Rave Alert became a Reliable Source at MUSC
Over the five years Rave Alert has been implemented at MUSC, the mass notification system has become a reliable and established source of information. When a member of the MUSC community receives a message from a member of the crisis communication team, they know it is important. Message content is planned in advance and messages sent within an hour of being agreed at MUSC's leadership meetings.
The crisis communications team has learned that sending too many messages, or community-wide messages that only relate to a small fraction of the community, could be regarded as spam by their recipients. This phenomenon is called alert fatigue, and can result in important messages being devalued. The ability to target certain groups on campus prevents the campus safety managers from sending too many alerts to the whole school. Heather said: “If we didn't have an update for a particular group, we identified that right away”.
One further measure the team took to enhance the reliability was to encourage the MUSC community to register secondary Gmail or Yahoo addresses on their personal safety profiles. This ensured staff and students who couldn't access MUSC emails unless they were sitting at an on campus computer could still receive crisis communications via their mobile devices. It's important for the school to keep students informed about enrollment practices, since this ensures all will receive relevant information during a storm like
According to the Emergency Manager at MUSC Bryan Wood, the school needs an alert system with capability that includes targeting. “We have a wide, vast, divergent community and we need to get organizational crisis communications out to them,"he said. "Rave Alert was the only way in which we could guarantee each and every person within our entire enterprise is getting messaging that we need them to get”. The series of events that led to Rave Alert keeping MUSC moving during Hurricane Florence has been compiled into a case study.
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