Emergency Communications

Dear Members of the University of Washington Community:

Over the past several years, the University has developed an emergency communications program that employs a variety of pathways. The centerpiece of the system is UW Alert, using text messages and emails to inform people about an emergency situation as fast as possible. UW Alert messages are also sent via Twitter and Facebook.

In addition, the University has an outdoor speaker system called UW Outdoor Alert, capable of conveying spoken messages to outdoor spaces on campus. And just this past year, the University installed a new voice-capable system that can reach almost all campus buildings, called UW Indoor Alert. This system is currently operational and undergoing testing. These key elements are supplemented by notices to both the UW’s home page and to its Emergency Blog website, www.emergency.uw.edu These latter resources, while important in providing information during an emergency, do not have the benefit of rapid delivery and are considered supplemental to the primary emergency communications tools that comprise the UW Alert suite.

UW Alert is an opt-in system that requires you to enroll through your mobile phone device, traditional phone line, or email. However, we are exploring ways to make the email component of the system an opt-out choice, where everyone would be enrolled automatically and could choose to opt-out. Currently, over 50,000 individuals registering 120,000 devices are active on UW Alert. When an emergency occurs, they automatically receive a brief message to the device or devices they have registered. Those who are not signed up can do so easily by going to www.uw.edu/alert Those who are signed up can also go there to make sure your information and preferences are current.

For the first time since these systems were put in place more than six years ago, the University experienced in December problems in the delivery of an emergency message through its vendor-supported UW Alert system. We have analyzed the event and are working with the vendor to fix the problem and ensure that when an emergency occurs, we can quickly and efficiently provide a warning and information to the campus. We understand how important speed and clarity are in communicating during an emergency, and we continually seek ways to improve our systems.

How do we decide when and what to communicate during an emergency? First, we assess the nature of the risk to the University community and the quality of the available information. A team that has been involved in crisis communications planning for the past six years, including representatives from the UW Police Department, Emergency Management, Media Relations and Communications, Student Life and UW IT, collectively arrives at this decision within minutes of an incident occurring. If you would like more information about Crisis Communications, you may find the UW’s plan at http://uw.edu/emergency/files/documents/CrisisCom_Oct_2011.pdf

We all hope that we have to draw upon these communications resources as infrequently as possible. But should we need these tools, they are there to inform you of emergency situations to help protect your safety and well-being.


Norm Arkans
Associate Vice President, Media Relations and Communications
Chair, UW Crisis Communications Committee