Alert system fails to live up to standards and deliver timely messages

Multiple incidents this summer have warranted notifications from the Carnegie Mellon administration in the form of Official Communication e-mails and University Alert text messages. While we are thankful for the emergency alert system, several flaws have impaired the effectiveness of many emergency notifications. The alert system has a history of getting messages out well after an emergency, giving inaccurate and incomplete information, and failing to provide actionable information.

The Aug. 19 flooding in Pittsburgh demonstrated how the current usage of the alert system fails to warn students and faculty about important issues. Granted, we do not expect the system to be omniscient and send out notifications before a natural disaster strikes. We do, however, expect the university to communicate clearly and in a timely fashion when long-lasting, developing events are taking place and when a well-timed alert could make a difference.

Although e-mails were sent out about flooding, water damage, and power outages in more than four campus buildings, no texts or voice messages were sent. In addition, warnings about staying out of said buildings came via e-mail after many faculty and staff tried to return to campus to assess the damage done to offices and workplaces. By sending alerts with explicit instructions through texts and Twitter, the alert system could have maximized the safety of our community and kept faculty, staff, and students away from contaminated floodwaters and the threat of tetanus.

The Aug. 23 earthquake that traveled from Virginia to Pennsylvania is another example of how the alert system is not being effectively used. Alert text messages and e-mails were received 40 minutes after the earthquake hit Pittsburgh. When an alert is received more than half an hour after a very minor earthquake, there is nothing useful that the alert will accomplish and no specific action that needs to be requested. However, if an alert is sent out during a developing situation like flooding, it has the opportunity to get actionable information out to everyone in time to use it.

Thankful as we are for the alert system, we believe it is not being used to its fullest potential. In the future, more timely instructions and widespread communication can keep the Carnegie Mellon community safe and well-informed in an emergency situation.