- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — Two 130-decibel sirens wailed across Virginia Commonwealth University’s downtown campuses yesterday, the first time students and staff heard the new devices that will alert them to a life-threatening emergency.

The sirens — one mounted atop Cabell Library at Monroe Park and the other on the Wood Building at the Medical College of Virginia campus — sounded for one minute at noon. A shorter blast followed; during a real emergency, that would signal an “all clear” to the 55,000-plus students and faculty on both campuses.

Audible up to a mile away, the sirens were put in place because of the Virginia Tech shootings, spokeswoman Pamela Lepley said.

Before the April 16 shooting, Miss Lepley said officials were considering stronger emergency-response measures but looked mostly at upgrading mass e-mail capabilities and arranging emergency text messaging.

Then student Seung-hui Cho killed 32 persons and himself on Tech’s Blacksburg campus. Amid the chaos, many on campus complained that they didn’t know what was going on.

At VCU, officials wanted to avoid such confusion should a similar tragedy strike.

“It became apparent to us that we needed a means to get everyone’s attention right away,” Miss Lepley said.

The sirens are battery-operated and can be remotely activated by campus police during any event that poses a grave threat. That could range from a shooting to a tornado, although Miss Lepley said officials don’t expect to use the sirens often.

“The most important part of it is raising awareness so the VCU community and our neighbors actually are aware of what the sirens sound like,” she said.

During a real emergency, school officials want students to go to the nearest university building and await information via one of 35 digital display boards posted on campus, or through text messages, Miss Lepley said. Students who are heading to campus or are already in a campus building would be advised via the Internet, text message or word-of-mouth to stay put.

About 11,000 have signed up for the emergency text messages.

“Obviously not as many people signed up as we would like,” Miss Lepley said yesterday morning. “Hopefully, today’s test will serve as an impetus.”

But moments after the alarms roared to life, senior Virgilio Nebel said he wasn’t any more likely to sign up for the text-message alerts.

“We’re not allowed to have text messages sent to us in class,” he said, before another person in his circle of friends said that some professors do allow text messaging.

Mr. Nebel and his friends were equally confused about the sirens, although all said professors had warned them of the test.

One student said she “wasn’t sure if we’re supposed to stay in class or leave,” another said she thought it was a fire alarm — a signal to evacuate, not stay put.

Nearby, students continued talking on cell phones and trundling to class as the sirens, reminiscent of old-time air-raid horns, blared.

Junior Philippa Vaughan thought the sirens were smart, and even sounded cool. Still, she questioned whether heading to the nearest university building was a good response plan during a real emergency.

“If the problem is in that building, that would be an issue,” she said.

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