UConnAlert: A User’s Guide

UConn wordmark.

On Tuesday, March 20, between noon and 1 p.m., the University will conduct a regular test of its Emergency Alert System. If you’re a student, faculty member, or staff member at Storrs, a regional campus, or the UConn School of Law, you’ll get a text message and email. If you’re at Storrs, you may hear a siren as well.

This test happens every semester, and is intended to keep the entire UConn community in a state of preparedness for any hazard that might present itself. But how much do you know about what to do in an emergency? To make sure this test is something more than just one of many texts and emails you’ll get during the day, this brief “user’s guide” is intended to help acquaint you with what it means when your phone buzzes with a message from UConnAlert.

UConnAlert

UConnAlert is the University’s term for the overall system of preparedness and notification used for emergency situations. Its home is alert.uconn.edu, where anyone with a UConn Net ID can sign up to receive notifications. It contains a wealth of information. In the event of a serious, long-duration emergency, updated information will be posted on this website in a blog, so keep that url handy.

One of the important features of the Alert website is a quick summary of terms that may be used by the University in communicating during an emergency, like “lockdown,” “shelter-in-place,” “evacuation,” and “all clear.” These terms are familiar in many contexts – many of our students are familiar with lockdown drills from primary and secondary school, for example – but the definitions and protocols aren’t standardized across every agency and institution that uses them.

This can create confusion – what’s the difference between a lockdown and an order to shelter-in-place? – at a time when every second is crucial. This is particularly true for an institution the size and complexity of UConn – a lockdown means one thing for an elementary school, but what does it mean for a university with locations across the state, and a campus in Storrs that’s effectively a small city?

Another factor to remember is that no list of official terminology, no matter how comprehensive, can account for every individual’s experience across an array of emergency situations that will differ hugely in scope, duration, and intensity. If you’re walking across Fairfield Way and see that an order to shelter-in-place has been issued because of a tornado moving into the area, what do you do?

That’s why the Alert site has, among its features, a list of Hazard Guides that detail what you can do to prepare for, and overcome, a range of the most common and most severe emergency situations. It’s hard to feel a sense of urgency when things are calm, but it’s also sub-optimal to be trying to download a PDF about tornadoes when one is five minutes away from your location.

When Do You Hear From Us?

The UConnAlert system is intended for use in three types of scenarios: a hazard presenting an immediate danger to life and safety; a large-scale change to the University’s operating schedule for any reason; and limited-impact situations that don’t present health or safety dangers, but which may disrupt the operations of a component or components of the University.

Let’s start with the most common: changes to the University’s schedule. You’re probably familiar with this in the form of alert messages regarding winter weather. When a decision is made to alter the University’s schedule, a message is sent out via text and email, while at the same time the University’s main social media channels and emergency phone line are updated. Alert.uconn.edu is also updated with information on the closure. This is fairly straightforward, but the frequency of its use, depending on the severity of a particular winter, can create the false impression that UConnAlert is only a tool to communicate schedule changes. It’s essential to know that the main intended use of UConnAlert is to quickly convey urgent information in the event of a hazard that presents a danger to human lives.

That’s why only one feature of the system – the email message – is used for the second-most common type of notification: limited-impact situations. A power outage in a residence hall or a water main break that affects a classroom building are headaches for the students, faculty, and staff involved, but they aren’t immediately life-threatening hazards. That’s why it’s important to check the Clutter or Spam folders in your email program, to make sure messages from UConnAlert aren’t being diverted there.

This brings us to the final, and thankfully most rare, scenario in which UConnAlert is used: immediate dangers to life and safety. These can be anything from naturally occurring hazards, such as a tornado or a fire following a lightning strike, to violence.

The threat which provokes the most inquiries from our community is what’s known as an “active shooter.” It is sickening that this has become a routine topic of preparation for universities and K-12 schools alike, but it is the reality of our society. The odds of this happening are low, but they aren’t non-existent; as a result, the University is constantly training and preparing to respond to an active shooter.

If that situation ever occurs, UConnAlert will send out a text and email indicating the nature of the threat and providing all the information we are able to. The message may also include a simple instruction: “Run Hide Fight.” This has produced an anxious response in other universities that have been forced to communicate it, but the message is the national protocol adopted and taught by the Department of Homeland Security.

In essence, what this means is that your first course of action should be to flee a building where an active shooter is present, if it is safe to do so. Avoid “staging areas” like parking lots, and put as much distance between you and the location with the shooter as possible.

If this isn’t possible, option two is to “hide.” What this means in practice is to get to a room that presents a relative degree of security – a door that locks, ideally without windows, and with materials inside that can be used to barricade the door – and call 911 if you can do so safely.

Finally, there is the last option. If you cannot run and you cannot hide, offering physical resistance may save your life or the lives of others. It is an awful possibility to discuss, but we do not live in a society where it can be ruled out as a choice you may have to make.

In conclusion, as a user of UConnAlert, you should make it a point to do the following:

  • Visit alert.uconn.edu
  • Sign up for alerts if you haven’t already done so
  • Familiarize yourself with emergency terminology
  • Browse the hazard guides
  • Make sure UConnAlert emails aren’t going to your Clutter folder

You can increase your level of preparedness for an active shooter scenario by visiting the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Active Shooter Preparedness webpage at https://www.dhs.gov/active-shooter-preparedness.

The UConn Police Department’s Community Outreach Unit also offers community presentations including Responding to an Active Threat: A Survival Mindset. During this engaging one- or two-hour program, you will participate in discussions about the realistic, tactical implementation of Run, Hide, Fight; develop a survival mindset and physiological responses to threat encounters; and identify and disrupt the pathway to violence through proactive prevention measures on campus. If you or your group is interested in one of these UConn Police Community Outreach programs, email PDStartTeam@uconn.edu for more information.

It is our sincere hope that you only get UConnAlerts during once-a-semester tests and in the event of yet another Nor’Easter. Regardless, the emergency alert system exists for your benefit: be an active participant in that system, and remember to stay alert.