UK Alert’s first run reveals problems

By Alice Haymond

When a tornado warning was issued for Fayette County early yesterday, UK used its new rapid-alert system to notify about 7,000 members of the campus community, but more than a third never received the message, while some others received it only after the storm had passed.

In its first activation since the Jan. 14 launch, UK Alert sent thousands of text messages, e-mails and voice recordings in 27 minutes, said Christy Giles, director of UK’s Office of Emergency Management. It reached about 4,500 people, which is 61 percent of the users who were registered correctly.

However, delivery of the alerts was slowed by delays in the Wide Area Rapid Notification system, heavy traffic on the phone network, downed power lines and spotty cell phone service, Giles said.

The notification process started at 1:21 a.m. yesterday, when the National Weather Service first issued a tornado warning for Fayette County. UK police dispatchers activated the warning system and sent out the first alert messages two minutes later, Giles said. They restarted the process seven minutes later when they realized the message did not include when the tornado warning would expire.

Some recipients were notified within a few minutes of the initial warning, while others did not receive a message until the last batch of notifications went out about 30 minutes later. The delays can be attributed to differences in how messages are delivered to different devices, Giles said.

When users sign up for UK Alert, they choose one or more ways to be contacted, such as by text message, e-mail, cell phone, landline phone, fax or pager. If the infrastructure those devices rely on is disrupted, such as by a major storm, then delivering messages can be difficult, said Don Griffis, president of WARN.

“Every network in the area, probably within a 100-mile radius, probably had some type of power or communications problems,” Griffis said.

“Where networks were open and available, we were getting good delivery,” he said.

Griffis said signing up to get notices through more than one device is the best way to ensure everyone is contacted during an emergency “because you never know what’s going to be disrupted.”

Phone calls and pagers were least effective yesterday, Giles said. Most people who registered their pagers never received a message because the numbers have to be entered into the system in a special way. Giles said her office would contact those people to work with them individually.

Meanwhile, voice messages take longer to process because of the extra steps required in making a phone call, such as getting a dial tone, waiting for the user to answer and playing the entire message, Griffis said. The system can potentially send upward of 10,000 e-mails or about 30 text messages in the time it takes to make a phone call, he said.

Phone calls also have a disadvantage because they have to travel through communication carriers that are not as reliable as e-mail, Giles said. Because of network problems, “message delivery could be delayed seconds, minutes, even hours.”

“We want them to receive that as quickly as possible, but it gets out of our control once we push that button and once it leaves the WARN system,” Giles said.

To find ways to improve the turnaround time, Giles first contacted WARN at 4 a.m. yesterday, and other UK officials joined her for a conference call with the company later that morning. WARN agreed to add an updated phone dialing service to UK’s system at no cost.

UK will test those changes in the next week, Giles said, and will publicize in advance the date and time of the test.

Almost 2,000 of the 9,100 people who have signed up for the system did not receive any messages because they did not enter any numbers or e-mail addresses, Giles said. Some of them did not realize their contact information was not registered until they called the Office of Emergency Management yesterday, she said.

UK Alert has received a significant amount of interest in its first few weeks, Griffis said, which means a large number of people in the campus community can be contacted quickly. However, he said, no single system or form of communication will be perfect for every situation.

“Emergencies never follow the plan,” he said. “You can have plans, but when an event unfolds, it never follows exactly the way you would expect it to.”

Staff writer Keith Smiley

contributed to this report