University Implements 'U.Va. Alerts' Emergency System

October 23, 2007
Oct. 23, 2007 -- Almost 10,000 individuals have signed up for “U.Va. Alerts,” the University of Virginia’s new emergency notification system. Organizers had hoped to reach that number of registered by the end of September.

But Marge Sidebottom, director of emergency preparedness at U.Va., said that she is hopeful that the numbers of subscribers will continue to climb throughout the coming months as part of overall efforts of preparedness at the University.

The system is two-pronged. In case of an emergency, those registered will receive text messages on their cell phones or other hand-held devices. Simultaneously, the emergency messages will flash on a dozen LCD screens being placed around Grounds and can also be published to RSS feeds.

The messages, limited to 125 characters, will instruct people to visit the University Web site to seek detailed information. A sample: “Gas leak at [location]. Avoid area. See” The subject line for the message will read “UVa ALERT.”

In all, there are 13 pre-approved messages, dealing with an anticipated emergency situation, including severe weather, gunmen, bomb threats, chemical spills and major electrical outages.
Members of the University community may register for U.Va. Alerts at
In establishing the new communications method, officials have stressed that it will be implemented in only true emergency situations. U.Va. Chief of Police Michael Gibson can recall only a few instances in the recent past when U.Va. Alerts might have been activated — perhaps in the case of specific, credible bomb threats, or during a July 2005 storm that downed trees and power lines in the area.

Signups for the system were accepted beginning in May. Most of those who have already registered are incoming first-year students advised of U.Va. Alerts at summer orientation. Returning students were also notified via e-mail once this summer, and will be reminded again after they arrive, said William L. Ashby, Newcomb Hall director and associate dean of students, who is heading up the effort.

Thus far, 19 people have been trained to initiate messages, from five different offices: the chief operating officer, provost, vice president for student affairs, University Police and public affairs.
Planning for the LCD screens — begun by Student Council, which was seeking a way to cut down on the use of paper advertising flyers — had already begun before the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech, but that tragedy added momentum to the project, Ashby said.

“After the Virginia Tech incident, text messaging became the first priority,” he said.

LCD screens should be in place by the end of September in Newcomb Hall; Clemons, Alderman and Brown Science and Engineering libraries; the Aquatics and Fitness Center; Memorial Gym; and the Slaughter and North Grounds recreation centers. The system can be further expanded, Ashby said.

The LCD message boards will display non-emergency messages when not needed for alerts, Ashby said, and can be customized by location.

Gibson says if that day never comes, he'll be happy with it. "I'm hopeful we will never have to use it," he said, "but it is valuable as a tool where you can access that many people in a short time."