Gas leak prompts school to utilize mass notification system
EDMONTON, Alberta—When a deadly gas leak was discovered in an 850-unit residential hall at the University of Alberta on April 13, the school immediately deployed its mass notification system and enacted its emergency response plans. “The building is three or four blocks long with a retail mall below and several floors of student housing above,” said Bill Mowbray, the director of campus security services at the university.
“The gas went through the air conditioning and heating system, so we evacuated the building and we did so through several different means,” he said. The security department had to evacuate more than 2,000 people from the building during the leak.
One of the primary means of evacuation was activating the school’s mass notification system. While Mowbray said the administration was pleased with how effective its technology performed, it was only part of a larger emergency notification system. It was critical to utilize the PA system in the residential hall as well as the fire alarm. Also, security personnel made personal contact with residents in the building, knocking on doors and directing students to safe exit routes out of the building.
Nor was it only security personnel who spread the message; once word of the incident got out students contacted each other. This was an unexpected outcome, said Mowbray.
“It’s an important aspect of mass notification that people naturally do this and that’s a positive thing,” he said.
However, students seemed to have mixed expectations of how the mass notification system was supposed to work. “Many students complained they learned about the evacuation order through ‘unofficial sources’ such as friends and colleagues, and some didn’t get the text message until hours later,” according to an article in the Edmonton Journal. However, Mowbray said the school encourages students to contact friends and peers.
“We heard comments that everyone wasn’t notified, but I think a lot of that is due to the fact that we can’t get 40,000 students notified in 10 minutes – that’s impossible,” he said. While there are limitations to the speed of the system, Mowbray said that in this case, the situation was under control quickly enough that the administration stopped sending the emergency notification system soon after, therefore many students did not receive the message.
One of the critical pieces to this incident was the school’s relationship with local fire and rescue services. “It became evident that floor plans were a big part of this,” said Mowbray. “It is important to maintain and make available floor plans of stairwells and suites and exhaust systems to fire services – those things were very useful,” he said.
Another lesson learned from this incident was how important it was for Mowbray himself to maintain constant communication with the school’s emergency operations center. “People in the EOC rely on the security director for information and direction and there was a point where I had to go do media interviews and I felt like that was detrimental to the EOC,” he said. “It was a good idea as far as media because the public wants to hear from someone in charge of security, but it’s important to make sure your role is taken over by someone else, otherwise it can effect operations.”
Overall, Mowbray said he was pleased with how the school handled this emergency and the effectiveness of its various response systems. And he thinks the deployment of this system will actually improve student awareness and participation in the school’s mass notification program. “When people receive messages, students will question whether it’s legitimate or not and that was the case here,” he said. “Having a real, live incident was probably good for us because they did question it, but next time maybe fewer will.”