How The University of Central Florida Used Mass Notification to Keep Their Campus Safe During Hurricane Irma

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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IRMA-JOSE-Did you know there are more tornadoes per square mile in Florida than in any other state? It's no wonder why the University of Central Florida is putting such a big emphasis on ensuring the safety of their campus no matter the situation.

When a hurricane or a major storm comes across the Florida peninsula, it has the potential to spawn tornadoes in its northeast quadrant, and central Florida is often in this area. This poses a unique safety challenge for college and university safety managers in this zone, and the task is especially challenging for those responsible for a large campus community. 

The current average lead time for a tornado warning is 13 minutes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). Time is critical when it comes to managing emergency alerts during a storm with potential for tornados. The University of Central Florida understands these stakes. Located east of downtown, the school has 68,000 students and 13,000 faculty members, and a campus spread over 1,415 acres and 220 buildings. The university also operates 11 regional campuses throughout central Florida.

“The faster we can alert, the better,” said Joe Thalheimer, the University of Central Florida’s Warning and Communications Coordinator. “Since it’s based on an average, we may not have the whole 13-minute lead time.”

In 2017, the university faced an even greater challenge when the company providing their mass notification service left the market. The school had 76,000 users, and needed a fast and effective system as a replacement. UCF sought bids for new mass notification providers and Thalheimer looked at companies who have successfully supported large universities. The university selected Rave Alert as its mass notification system. Rave Alert email and text notifications are sent to students, faculty, employees and other non-UCF entities working on campus, such as food service vendors, construction personnel and temporary workers operating on long-term projects.

A Real-Time Test

UCF tested Rave Alert throughout the summer of 2017 and was all set to do its regularly scheduled fall semester test, but Hurricane Irma developed in late August. The storm created a real-time test of the system’s capability, and the school was able to effectively use Rave Alert to keep the community informed. Prior to Irma making landfall, UCF instructed as many people to evacuate as it could. About 3,000 stayed on campus in ride-out locations with the university’s law enforcement officers. While in their ride-out locations, they received email and text notifications from Rave Alert, as well as in-building and wide-area loud voice announcements.

The UCF Department of Security and Emergency Management began sending emails and text messages on September 5, 2017, providing hurricane updates and offering resources to the UCF community. UCF sent one or two messages every day until September 12, 2017,when it sent the final hurricane-related message. Thalheimer, who stationed at UCF’s Emergency Operations Center, sent out Rave Alert messages to the UCF community throughout the storm. The messages were received in approximately two minutes, while messages from the surrounding counties were delayed by as much as 20 minutes, despite being sent at the same time.

Keeping the UCF Community Safe and Engaged

Rave Alert is used at University of Central Florida to keep the community out of harm’s way. The system strictly used for emergencies and UCF users are automatically enrolled in the system. When Hurricane Irma hit, UCF had approximately 76,000 users in the Rave Alert notification system, and now currently has about  78,000. The UCF campus community can only opt out of text message alerts, and less than 5 percent of its 81,000-member community have opted out.

UCF also uses Rave Alert’s SMS Opt-In feature with law enforcement personnel during special events. For example, the feature allows local law enforcement officers to opt into Rave Alert temporarily by texting a keyword to a short code during home football games. As these officers safeguard events of this sort, they receive text messages and information about developing safety situations.

Thalheimer also found the system to be reliable, not requiring any time-consuming maintenance. “I have a lot of things on my plate and I don’t have a lot of time to be on the phone with tech support to troubleshoot things,” Thalheimer said. “That’s the thing about Rave Alert. It works.”

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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