Getting the most out of the emergency Hawk Alert system

Student walking down a snowy street

With the winter weather season approaching, it’s a good time to remind the campus that University of Iowa students and employees will be notified through Hawk Alert if classes are canceled.

Hawk Alert is the emergency notification system that allows campus administrators and public safety officials to send text messages, voice messages, and e-mails to the campus community within approximately 15 minutes.

Federal law requires all colleges and universities to have a plan and method of notifying the campus in emergency situations. In 2007, the UI selected a third-party vendor to provide the technical solution for its Hawk Alert system. Since then, the UI has used it to communicate about weather emergencies and to warn individuals about potential threats to their personal safety.

In each situation, campus officials must make a judgment call about whether to issue a Hawk Alert. In some cases, the decision is an obvious one; other times it’s not as clear-cut because the events are rapidly unfolding and not all desired information is available. Some of the many considerations include the proximity of a threat to campus, whether the threat is serious and ongoing, and whether weapons are involved. Individuals responsible for issuing Hawk Alerts face a challenging balancing act of gathering and confirming information, but also getting the message out quickly.

Preferences on emergency notifications vary. Some people want to know as much as possible as the event develops. Others would rather hear less, especially if the situation is occurring during late hours.

We do our very best to use the system conservatively, issuing Hawk Alerts only when we believe a situation warrants a mass emergency notification in the interest of public safety. The system is one of the university’s emergency communication tools, but is not intended to provide blow-by-blow updates as details emerge. We think of it as a flare gun to let the campus know something is going on, and to be aware. After an alert is issued, we encourage you to keep an eye on other reliable sources of information, including the university’s new emergency website, emergency.uiowa.edu, and local news outlets.

The Hawk Alert system isn’t perfect; like almost anything, it is subject to technical glitches and human error. But it is currently the most effective tool we have available to reach the campus community quickly in an emergency situation. A Hawk Alert typically reaches 90 percent of the approximately 50,000 individuals and classrooms on campus. (The system is unable to reach 100 percent of individuals on the list because in some cases recipients may not have updated their contact information when it changed, or may not answer the Hawk Alert phone call.)

We encourage every member of the campus community to partner with us and take the following steps to help optimize use of the Hawk Alert system:

·       Update your contact information at hawkalert.uiowa.edu. Select the ways you’d like to be notified (text message, e-mail, phone call). Texts are the preferred, fastest, and most reliable method.

·       Limit contact information to your own (employees and students, not friends and family).

·       Answer Hawk Alert calls. (Otherwise the system will keep trying, slowing the notification process.)

We also encourage everyone to share the responsibility of notifying others in an emergency situation. Technology is helpful, but word of mouth is another important mode of communication. If you pick up a shared phone in your office and hear a Hawk Alert, be sure your colleagues are aware. If you see people walking toward a building that’s locked down, ensure that they know something is going on.

We appreciate you taking an active role in campus safety by helping us make the best use of our emergency notification system. For more information on Hawk Alert, visit hawkalert.uiowa.edu.

Chuck Green (above, right) is an assistant vice president and the director of the UI Department of Public Safety. Steve Fleagle (above, left) is an associate vice president and the UI’s chief information officer.