Institute Tests New Alert System

The MIT Security and Emergency Management Office initiated a campus-wide emergency test drill in late August that consisted of sending messages via phone, e-mail, and text messaging to members of the MIT community. The office, which was launched on July 1, 2007, serves as a resource center for security-related issues. Approximately 26,000 e-mail messages were sent in under five minutes.

Thomas W. Komola of the MIT Police said the implementation of the drill was “excellent.” In case of an emergency, the new system would allow people to react to reality rather than word of mouth, he said.

David M. Barber, emergency response specialist and member of the Security Office’s three-person staff, said he is confident in the drill’s ability to “push out information in a very short time period” were an emergency to occur. On the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, e-mail messages reached the entire MIT community after several hours, compared to the five minutes it took during the August test, Barber said.

The size of the MIT community ranges from 25,000 to 27,000 depending on the time period and definition of the community, Barber said. He defined the MIT community to include students, employees, staff, faculty, visiting researchers, visiting professors, contractors, and service vendors among others.

The security office is working on refining the database that holds the contact information of members of the MIT community, Barber said. The August drill showed that there are certainly gaps in the system. Regardless, communication by word of mouth will be necessary to some degree, he said.

As a result of the Virginia Tech shootings in April, many colleges across the country are implementing emergency-alert systems of various types. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, two schools, facing violence during the past two weeks, successfully used their systems. At Delaware State University, resident advisers knocked on the doors of dormitory rooms during the night after two students were shot and wounded. At the University of Maryland at College Park, community members received a warning on their cell phones about a violent carjacking near a student dormitory.

Aside from the test drill, MIT’s new emergency system has not been used.

In addition to the test messages, the security office is planning to incorporate an outdoor drill system, video displays in student dormitories, and technology that redirects browsers in the local area network to MIT’s emergency site during a case of emergency, Barber said. Also, the office is working to improve the cell phone coverage on campus.

In terms of funding, Barber said the administration holds the office’s pursuits in high importance and would not likely place any restraints. The office has been successful in acquiring funding for all its pursuits so far.

Practice drills will occur more frequently in the future, most likely once per term, Barber said.

John DiFava, director of the Security Office and MIT Police chief, said the new office oversees issues involving card access and alarms, assesses campus vulnerability, and is currently running a pilot program on background checks. Generally, people are confused about security services, which differ from policing, DiFava said, so the need for a separate office became apparent soon after he became campus police chief in October 2001.

The development of the office occurred “long before [the] Virginia Tech” shooting incident, Komola said. Located in Building N52, above the MIT Museum, the office is staffed by Komola, Barber, and Daniel L. Michaud, former manager of the MIT Card Office.

“Demand is tremendous,” Komola said. The security office is having a “difficult time keeping up with it.”

Students can update their contact information on Websis, MIT’s student information system, to include their cell phone numbers. Cell phone numbers will not be published in either MIT’s online or printed telephone directories and will only be used in the event of an emergency.