Eventful semester spotlights alerts

Credit: Juan Fernandez/Staff Artist Credit: Juan Fernandez/Staff Artist

With the ongoing bomb threats at the University of Pittsburgh and recent shooting at Western Psychiatric Hospital, safety has become a top priority for many members of the Carnegie Mellon community.

Carnegie Mellon’s emergency alert messages are sent out through the CMU Alerts system, which is operated by emergency alert vendor SendWordNow. According to the official CMU Alerts website, the system “notifies the university community when there’s a significant campus emergency or weather event.”

“We classify the threats into two levels,” said Madelyn Miller, director of Environmental Health & Safety (EHS). “One of them would be imminent danger: tornado, shooter on campus. And those just get blasted. Then there’s the other threats: power outage, water main break. Those go out slower. Nobody’s really in danger. Those go out without a rush, and they get passed through different people. If it’s not an imminent danger, it goes out through a slower method.”

Miller said that only 63 percent of the undergraduate population is signed up for CMU Alerts.

“I wish we had 100 percent enrollment,” said Lieutenant Gary Scheimer of the University Police. Scheimer said that he is always concerned about members of the campus community who are not signed up for emergency Alerts.

First-year Bachelor of Computer Science and Art student Henry Armero admitted that he only signed up for CMU Alerts about three weeks ago. “I didn’t really know about it,” he said.

Even among those signed up for the system, some people still do not receive alerts.

“The Tartan had an editorial saying that, ‘I signed up for SendWordNow, and I didn’t get called,’ ” Miller said. “I’m concerned about that, because we want everybody to be on SendWordNow. I’m hoping that these tests would be able to find any bugs in the system, if there are any. Nobody ever followed up. After our recent test, nobody came back and said, ‘Hey, I was signed up and didn’t get the message.’ ”

Miller sent a special test alert to a Tartan staff member who said that she had never received any alerts, but had not reported the failure to EHS. Records confirmed that the staff member was registered for alerts; that the phone number listed in the system was correct; and that special alert was sent out to her. However, the staff member did not receive the special alert. Miller said that the problem likely lies either with Sprint, the student’s phone service provider, or with the aggregator, a system that directs messages to service providers.

“Once it gets to the aggregator, we have no control as to where it goes out,” Miller said. “So the aggregator goes, ‘Oh, here’s Madelyn Miller’s phone number, it goes to AT&T. Here’s somebody else’s, it goes somewhere else….’ That’s what an aggregator does. There’s no company that can do anything about the aggregators.”

EHS sent out a survey to a select group of Sprint users on Thursday to see if others have been missing alert messages. Miller encouraged any student who has experienced a problem with emergency alerts to contact EHS.

According to Miller, the university first instituted an emergency alert system after 9/11. “We really did a huge rewrite for that system,” Miller said. “And then in 2004, we had a huge power transformer that knocked out 10 buildings, and the way everybody notified each other was through email, and of course without computers, there was no email. So we had a phone tree at that point, and the lists for the phone trees were on the computer.”

After this incident, the university purchased the service of AlertNow, which provided emergency calls to a limited audience of 400 people in the campus “emergency operations group.”

After the Virginia Tech shooting, the system changed again. “It was one of those V8 moments, where we went, ‘We really need to include all the students,’ ” Miller said. “So we expanded AlertNow and had about 10,000 [people] on that system.”

Carnegie Mellon set up a committee to search for a new emergency alert vendor, with emphasis on speed and user interface, among other features. The committee ultimately selected the vendor SendWordNow.
Scheimer said that he is happy with the new vendor. “We get the info out via text and phone calls very quickly,” he said.

Shreepal Shah, a sophomore information systems major, feels that CMU Alerts are “good for the most part, because they’re pretty quick about getting a text or voice call out.” Shah added that, in his opinion, “Texting is a lot more convenient.”

First-year mechanical engineering major Seth Cordts agreed.

“The texts are helpful,” he said. But, Cordts added, “The email seems overused.”

Recent events such as the Pitt bomb threats have raised questions about when Carnegie Mellon should warn students about off-campus threats. “We sent out alerts when there’s a direct threat to our community,” Scheimer said.

“I had conversations about this with Lt. Scheimer, and we sort of parsed out the difference between a low-level threat and a threat that had some validity,” Miller said. “A low-level threat would be, somebody goes into Starbucks and writes on a coffee cup, ‘Bomb at seven,’ and puts it in the bathroom. Kind of a low-level threat. Or an email. Or a note in the bathroom. These are the bomb threats that came out at Pitt.”
If they haven’t already done so, students are encouraged to sign up for alerts at