Office of Emergency Management continues preparations for security drills on campus

By Shelby Ashline

At least twice each semester, sirens echo across the University of Massachusetts campus. Students hear a monotone voice call out over the speakers and feel their phones buzzing, with text messages and e-mails conveying the same information as the voice –“This is a test of the UMass Amherst Alerts System.”

The Office of Emergency Management conducted this semester’s first test of the UMass Amherst Alerts system last Thursday, Oct. 2, at 11:15 a.m.

Although the test may have seemed routine, Jeff Hescock, director of University Emergency Management and Business Continuity, said improvements made to the system over the summer sped up the delivery of the messages on Thursday.

“(The new system) allows us to be more streamline in the way that we send the message,” Hescock said. “Once you hit ‘send’ you’re sending (the message) to both e-mail and text at the same time versus before we had two different systems…We kind of went from having two red buttons to one red button.”

Hescock assessed last week’s test as being “extremely successful,” and said he and his staff have not run into any problems with the system that need to be addressed.

Before each test, the Office of Emergency Management staff members are positioned around  campus to act as spotters. They give Hescock feedback once the test is over regarding how well they could hear the sirens and the voice.

Hescock explained that even though there are eight strategically placed outdoor warning sirens across campus, depending on the day of the year, time and weather conditions, people might have more difficulty making out the voice’s message. All the same, hearing a warning siren indicates to the 30,000 students and faculty on campus that they should check their phones for emergency emails and texts that will provide them with more information.

“Through the years, (the sirens) have been tested so much, we really feel like we have great coverage on the campus,” Hescock said. Federal law requires that UMass test the UMass Amherst Alert system at least once per semester, according to Hescock, but the Office of Emergency Management chooses to test twice per semester and once during the summer.

Hescock emphasized that part of the purpose of testing the system so frequently is to gauge the sound quality of the sirens and voice so adjustments can be made, if necessary, in addition to combatting any potential problems with delivering the automated e-mails and texts.

“Preparedness is key,” Hescock said. “We’re always practicing before we respond (to) an emergency. We update our procedures, update our plans and update our checklists.”

Hescock and his staff’s preparedness extends beyond just the tests of the alert system. He and the Campus Emergency Operations Center Team, which consists of 18 people from different functional areas across campus, have regular meetings where they perform tabletop exercises, practicing how they would respond to mock scenarios. Additionally, the Office of Emergency Management conducts a full-scale mock exercise each year.

This year, the Office of Emergency Management, in collaboration with UMass Police Department, received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security for $106,500, which will fund an all day, regional exercise sometime during the spring semester. According to Hescock, it is expected to integrate all of the Five Colleges, campus, local and state police forces, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Campus Emergency Operations Center Team.

However, the UMass Amherst Alert system is not only used during tests or to alert people of danger on campus. During particularly harsh winters, the system is utilized to alert students, faculty and staff when the University closes due to weather conditions.

“We probably used it a half a dozen times for school closures this past year,” Hescock said.

Although the system doesn’t need to be used frequently, Hescock is convinced that when and if an emergency situation does occur, he and the Campus Emergency Operations Center Team will be ready to respond because of their extensive preparation.

“At the end of the day…when (the Campus Emergency Operations Center Team needs) to come together, we do so effectively because we’ve trained, we’ve exercised, we all know each other…We can kind of finish each other’s sentences at some points,” Hescock said. The UMass Amherst system in turn “becomes kind of a well-oiled machine.”

Hescock encourages anyone who has not signed up for text message alerts to do so to further enhance communication of the urgent messages.


Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected]