UH Powers Up Emergency PlanWith $2.5 Million Project, Other Tactics

July 21, 2008

The University of Houston continues to strengthen its emergency preparedness strategy with a $2.5 million power project and plans to install digital signage across campus and notification systems in classrooms.

Under the multi-million-dollar project, administrators will purchase four, 12,000-gallon fuel tanks and a 5,000-gallon tank to store on campus in case UH loses power during an emergency, according to Dave Irvin, associate vice president for plant operations and Emergency Management Committee chairman.

“The university has contracts with suppliers guaranteeing right of first refusal for diesel fuel, but as we learned from Hurricane Katrina, sometimes those contracts may be usurped by federal or state governments,” Irvin said. “These new tanks will give us the extra supply we may need to operate generators in buildings deemed most critical for our business continuity.”

Additionally, UH is expanding the number of generators on campus from 40 to 45, but the new equipment will have the capacity to power entire buildings, Irvin said.

“We recently purchased large generators for the General Services Building and the Central Site Technology Commons (formerly known as the Central Site Computing Center),” he said. “We will buy more generators, probably in the fall, that will allow us to power Hofheinz Pavilion, E. Cullen and a significant portion of the quad and the engineering building.”

The other issue administrators are continuing to address is communicating to faculty, staff and students during emergencies. In April, UH installed civil defense-type sirens on the roofs of three buildings — the Center for Public Broadcasting, the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center and the Texas Learning and Computation Center Annex.

Now, administrators can use the sirens as a public announcement (PA) system, which would include a long blast followed by an announcement, said Dennis Fouty, associate vice president for information technology and chief information officer.

“We’re developing a multi-layer approach to our emergency communication,” Fouty said. “We must have multiple methods to get people’s attention.”

One of those methods is digital signage, Fouty said, adding plans are under way to install this type of signage at 20 high-traffic locations.

UH also has invested about $15,000 to add 10 Alertus notification beacons to classrooms, he said. These devices will transmit a siren, strobe light and then a message.

“Notification beacons are an efficient way to communicate to people who can’t hear a mass notification siren or have access to e-mail, text messages or digital signage,” Fouty said. “We will rollout and test the beacons in the fall.”

In the future, Irvin hopes to conduct a comprehensive review of UH’s emergency communications, which includes PAs available in about 85 percent of campus buildings; announcements on the home page; and e-mail and text messages sent via PIER (Public Information and Emergency Response). Additionally, UH plans to distribute 30,000 of its 2008-2009 Emergency Resources Guide to the campus community.

“I encourage all faculty, staff and students to update their contact information, including cell phones and e-mail addresses, in PASS, so the university will be able to notify them about emergencies through our PIER system,” Fouty said.

Another improvement that will enable the university to return to normal operations quickly after an emergency is the establishment of a secondary data center in Dallas.

“The system, which will enable the university to continue to provide such computing services as Web CT and PeopleSoft during a disaster, is now up and running,” Fouty said.

With these new improvements, UH will be better prepared for disasters, Irvin said.

But, it’s the university’s current efforts that are being evaluated by the State Auditor’s Office. Last week, auditors visited campus as part of a project to evaluate the emergency preparedness of seven state universities, including Texas A&M University and The University of Texas-Austin, Irvin said. The office also wants to develop a list of best practices to share with universities across Texas. Their official report is not due until early to mid-September.

Francine Parker