Tornado Drill Gives University's Alert Systems a Trial Run

March 18, 2008 — The University of Virginia's emergency alert system was awash with tornado alerts Tuesday.

U.Va. took part in the statewide tornado preparedness exercise declared by Gov. Timothy Kaine. University officials scheduled the drill as a way of educating people about tornado safety and testing the University's alert systems, some of which worked better than others.

"The drill was a success before we even did it," said Marjorie L. Sidebottom, director of emergency preparedness for the University. "I received many calls and notes from people who wanted additional information. This drill has made people aware of what they need to do."

Sidebottom said several of the University's systems worked well. The chain of events started with notification of a tornado from the emergency communications center. The police then verified the alert and distributed a warning on the "U.Va. Alerts" text-message and e-mail system, as well as notifying the Medical Center.

The University's Internet home page and emergency information site also changed, carrying information about the alert.

"We wanted to make it as realistic as possible," Sidebottom said.

Sidebottom said that while the U.Va. Alerts text messages went out, the University's stand-alone e-mail alert system had some problems that merit further examination.

"The mass e-mail system did not work as well as we wanted," Sidebottom said. "A lot of things worked well. I am pleased with the number of people who sent comments and suggestions."

She also thanked professors who incorporated the drill and tornado awareness into their classroom lessons.

Sidebottom thinks the education aspects of the exercise went well. She wanted drill participants to understand that a "tornado watch" is in place when conditions exist that could form a tornado, while a "tornado warning" is issued when a tornado has been sighted or begins to form. She also wanted people to understand the principles of "shelter in place," including where the most protected parts of a building are. "You want to get to the lowest point, away from windows," she said.

An online survey will remain on the University Web site for a few days to allow people to comment, and Sidebottom said she will analyze those responses soon. Emergency personnel will hold a debriefing on Thursday to review the drill.