Expand the use of WUSTLAlerts

The tornado that ripped through Richmond Heights, Mo. on Feb. 27 thankfully caused no injuries and resulted in only a few downed power lines on the corner of Big Bend Boulevard and Clayton Avenue. Washington University’s response to the county wide tornado warning, however, highlighted a failure by the University to communicate with the student body—a failure that must not be repeated in subsequent instances of severe weather or other campus emergencies.

The response to the tornado warning did little to prepare students for severe weather and actually made the situation worse. Students were rushed into the basement of Olin Library, only to be told to evacuate the library while the county was still under a tornado warning. Some students living on the South 40 could not hear the St. Louis County tornado sirens installed on Brookings Hall and Nemerov House, so they were confused when told to move to the hallway by resident advisors. Others who heard the sirens experienced similar confusion at their RAs’ lack of response to the warning. This uncertainty could be avoided in the future if the University would re-consider its use of the WUSTLAlerts system, which will be tested Thursday at approximately 1:30 p.m.

The system sends members of the University community e-mail and text message notifications when activated by the administration during an emergency. According to Mark Bagby, the University’s emergency management coordinator, the WUSTLAlerts system was created in 2007 “for life-threatening emergencies or emergencies that we need to get information to people very, very quickly—for example, a gunman on campus or a hazardous materials threat.” Severe weather is not included in these parameters, although the only time the system has been used was to alert students of the University’s decision to close due to the ice storm this past January. We were pleased with the way in which the University advised students to take precaution under these circumstances, and they should continue to do so even when University operations remain unaffected. We encourage the University to expand the system for use during severe weather and other instances in which the safety of students, faculty and staff could be compromised.

Tornado warning sirens are only designed to reach individuals who are not already inside of buildings; the WUSTLAlerts system is designed to reach everyone instantaneously. Community members would not be inconvenienced by receiving one more text message or e-mail, and with full dissemination of information, there would be no confusion over what steps need to be taken to ensure the continued safety of members of the University community. Students should feel comfortable with the safety protocols in place and not confused by University actions or a lack thereof, especially considering the frequency of tornadoes in St. Louis. Posting these alerts on the emergency.wustl.edu website would also aid this cause.

The University needs to remember that a large contingent of students come from outside of the Midwest and have no idea how to identify or prepare for tornado conditions. Considering the ease by which the University could alert the community of severe weather conditions via the WUSTLAlerts system, the administration should not hesitate to use the program to its full potential.

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