University revises emergency notifications

The University has changed the process used to alert the campus community about a tornado warning and expanded the criteria for sending informational messages about crime and safety-related activities on or near campus.

The changes continue the University’s response to the confusion and uncertainty evident last September 6 when the emergency sirens were twice activated for separate tornado warnings in Orange County. Director of Public Safety Jeff McCracken said University officials also carefully considered feedback from students, faculty, staff and parents during the current academic year in looking at the circumstances under which the Department of Public Safety will send an informational email as part of Alert Carolina.

For a tornado, the only change involves when the sirens will sound. Previously, the University activated the sirens for a tornado warning issued for Orange County by the National Weather Service. (A tornado warning means a tornado has been spotted and is on the ground. The threat is real, and people should take immediate action.)

Now the siren criteria will be based on tornado warnings that are specific for Chapel Hill and Carrboro, McCracken said in a campus email sent March 16. The weather service has developed a polygon storm-based method to more narrowly identify the path of a tornado and affected towns and cities. “We’ll use that to activate the sirens instead of a county-wide warning,” he said. “This approach also is consistent with UNC Health Care’s practices.”

Last August the University adopted Emergency Notification Protocols that detail how the University informs the campus community using three different types of notifications – Emergency Warning (sirens), Timely Warning and Informational.

As part of timely warning notifications, the University will continue to send an informational text message and campus email when the National Weather Service issues a tornado watch for all of Orange County. A watch means conditions are favorable for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms in and close to the watch area. The weather service says people in these areas should be on the lookout for threatening weather conditions and listen for later statements and possible warnings.

McCracken said the other significant change the University is making covers informational notifications, which are sent via an Alert Carolina email. These messages are issued if a situation is not an emergency and does not pose an immediate threat to the campus community, but is of significant interest. The goal is to tell people to be aware of a particular situation.

As a result of the recent review, McCracken said the following are the new examples of circumstances that may meet the threshold for an informational notification:

• Reports of an alleged assault (sexual or physical) made to the Department of Public Safety that do not warrant a timely warning, and in which the assailant is not known by the victim. An informational notification also will be issued in cases in which the alleged assault occurred within close proximity to the campus and the reports are based on information shared by local law enforcement agencies. Notification may be elevated to timely warning if additional information becomes available to the Department of Public Safety.

• The notification of a particular crime or crime pattern could enhance the overall safety/security of the campus community. For example, the threat is intermittent, such as the identified increase in the theft of laptop computers from a specific area.

• The Department of Public Safety – or an off-campus law enforcement agency – seeks information to assist in solving a crime.

“These changes reflect the University’s efforts to strike a delicate balance between making sure accurate information is available and the campus community’s need to know about a possible threat,” McCracken said. “There is no perfect protocol to address every situation.”