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Published in CenterView on September 10, 2012

UMMC’s Emergency Management team seeks to AlertU of significant threats

By Bruce Coleman

Strolling along a downtown boulevard in Austin, Texas. Rushing to attend a morning class in Blacksburg, Va. Visiting a sick relative on a dreary Sunday in Joplin, Mo.

Even the most innocuous of activities can end in tragedy. Just ask the families of those personally affected by infamous shootings at the University of Texas at Austin and Virginia Tech University, or the devastating tornado that hit St. John’s Hospital in Joplin.

The Emergency Management Team at the University of Mississippi Medical Center doesn’t ever want the UMMC campus added to that list, but it is prepared for these scenarios just in case. On Sept. 1, the Center for Emergency Services launched the AlertU initiative, a process for notifying the UMMC community of a significant threat.

According to Jonathan Wilson, clinical director of emergency services, to be forewarned is indeed to be forearmed.

“We’ve designed the AlertU system to be activated only in emergencies, such as a shooter on or near campus or a weather emergency – specifically a tornado,” Wilson said. “It’s our way of getting the word out quickly, to make students and staff aware of an emergency so they can take immediate action.”

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, associate vice chancellor for health affairs, said the emergency notification system is essential to maintaining a secure campus environment.

“Having an emergency management system at UMMC is very important for several reasons,” Woodward said. “First, the safety and security of everyone on campus is our top priority. Second, quick communication is sometimes difficult on a large campus with such a large number of people.

“Our skillful emergency management personnel using systems like AlertU will help get everyone on campus the information they need during an emergency.”

Wilson said that although an emergency notification system has been in place at UMMC for some time, AlertU relies on the most sophisticated technology available to keep the campus prepared for any disaster. Through a cooperative arrangement with the National Weather Service and the Campus Police Department, Mississippi Med-Com Center staff maintain a vigilant watch over the UMMC campus 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We have a large concentration of people on campus and we want to take the appropriate measures to notify them of critical information as quickly as possible.”

Triggered by Med-Com upon notification of a direct threat to the UMMC campus, AlertU uses virtually all modes of voice or alphanumeric communication to connect immediately with employees and students. From cell phone calls and texts to e-mail notifications, pages and calls to individual residences, the AlertU message will include concise instructions on how to respond to the given emergency.

“Our emergency management team did a good job of researching best practices, whether it was the campus shootings at Virginia Tech or UT-Austin or the tornado’s impact at Joplin. We have taken the lessons learned and best practices at those events and put them in place at UMMC.
“AlertU is one of those practices.”

AlertU gets its employee contact information directly from the online employee profile. Student information is uploaded upon enrollment. But for the AlertU system to function as designed, Wilson said it is vital that all Medical Center employees and students make sure their contact information is accurate.

“When this system is activated, we need to make sure our staff and students take immediate action,” he said. “If they aren’t in the system, they can’t get timely notification, and if they don’t get notified, they can’t take immediate action to protect patients, visitors or themselves.”  

Wilson advises all employees to check their contact information on the UMMC Intranet by scrolling over the “Telephone Directories” link on the left sidebar, selecting “Faculty and Staff Listing” and entering their name. Students should verify their information by visiting their individual “MyU” portal and selecting “My Profile,” then “Contact Information.”

Responding to Isaac

Fortunately, Hurricane Isaac didn’t pose a significant threat to central Mississippi after it made landfall on the Lousiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast Aug. 29. But that didn’t mean the Center for Emergency Services wasn’t prepared.

According to Jonathan Wilson, his team has two primary responsibilities: to prepare the Medical Center community for the storm’s impact and to support state agencies throughout Mississippi that were responding to the emergency.

“Internally, we worked with campus leaders to make sure we had the power, water, food and staffing needed to provide support services for the community,” he said. “Externally, we worked with the Department of Health and MEMA (the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) to have our field hospitals and other response teams on alert.”

Earlier this year, the National Weather Service bestowed its StormReady Community designation to the Medical Center, the first health-care institution in the state – and one of only two in the Southeast – to receive the classification. 

Although the need didn’t arise to deploy field hospitals, Wilson said teams were sent to the coast and to southwest Mississippi to help assess and provide any post-landfall needs of hospitals in those areas.  

“Our hospitals on the coast are so well prepared in the wake of (2005’s Hurricane) Katrina – and even before then – that one staff nurse said Isaac was more of a nuisance than a bad hurricane,” Wilson said. “They really deserve kudos for the work that they’ve done to prepare.”