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FORT LEE, Va. -- A key element of disaster preparedness is knowing how you would be notified and what immediate steps need to be taken when an emergency warning is heard.

“If you don’t know what you’re looking or listening for, it’s harder to recognize it when a serious incident is occurring,” noted Thomas Loden, installation emergency manager for the Fort Lee Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security. “Also, there’s no such thing as a single, all-encompassing alert system; so, it’s important to know where the gaps exist and have a plan for spreading the word so every community member is aware of what’s happening.”

Fort Lee uses a “family of systems” to ensure everyone receives timely notification of a pending or ongoing natural or man-made emergency. According to Loden, the goal of mass warning and notification is to ensure everyone who lives, works, trains or transits the installation is notified within 10 minutes of an event.

“The head of the family is the exterior voice speaker network, which many individuals on post hear every Wednesday – usually around mid-morning and shortly after the duty day ends – when we (the installation operations center) conduct a test of the equipment,” Loden said. “Exterior voice is multidirectional and is designed for those outside of a structure to hear the warning message and take appropriate action such as seeking shelter due to an impending event.”

A variety of factors can impact the exterior voice network’s range including wind, atmospheric conditions, ambient noise and malfunctioning equipment. “That’s a big reason why we conduct weekly tests. It familiarizes the community with the system and helps us identify range and operational issues. We always encourage individuals to call or send an email to us if they’re having a hard time hearing the system or notice that a speaker is broken.”

Many administrative buildings and customer service facilities on post also are equipped with the interior voice system. Features include flashing lights, a warning alarm and local messaging for fire and other emergencies.

“The IOC can select individual buildings, targeted zones on the installation or the entire collection of facilities that have interior voice capability,” Loden explained. “That gives us a lot of flexibility in tailoring emergency alerts to the situation, i.e., bomb threats, active-shooter incidents, and so on. Facility managers also have the ability to activate their building’s warning system during an emergency. It’s a multifunctional system and the Directorate of Emergency Services can provide training for building occupants and managers upon request.”

Key leaders on the installation receive emergency notification via email and are encouraged to further distribute that information to others, particularly at subordinate levels.

“Remember, LeeKey email traffic does not reach everyone on the installation or every individual on the primary email exchange server,” Loden said. “Not getting important information is worse than possible duplication of messages, so communicating vertically and horizontally is imperative.”

A great source of information during weather-related emergencies is the IOC’s status update hotline – (804) 765-2679 – Loden continued. It is updated twice a day when incidents occur that result in the early release of post employees, delays in opening times, closures and/or hazardous road conditions.

“That resource is normally used in conjunction with the notices that appear on local television and radio networks,” he said. “In those instances, we only control the information that’s being provided. How it’s presented is up to the network, and they all do it differently, so the time we send it and when it’s actually announced can significantly vary.”

Lastly, and by far the most versatile of notification devices, is AtHoc – an emergency alert application capable of establishing contact via text, talk, email or computer popup alerts. The multiple methods of communication offer greater assurance that all enrolled individuals will be reached.

The Fort Lee AtHoc system also can prioritize the methods of alert based on the scenario, and users receiving the alerts have the ability to provide responses to acknowledge receipt of the message as well as provide additional status information if requested by the system operator. Furthermore, AtHoc allows the IOC to send targeted alerts to a portion of the installation if a post-wide response is not necessary.

Only Common Access Card holders can register for AtHoc. According to Department of Defense Instruction 6055.17, “DoD Emergency Management Program,” all military, civilian and contractor personnel whose normal place of duty is on an installation or in a defense department facility must ensure their contact information (personal and work cellphone, landlines, email, etc.) is entered into AtHoc. Family member contact information can be added at time of registration or afterward.

For AtHoc to work effectively, individuals will need to self-register at any CAC-enabled computer on Fort Lee. Users will insert their CAC and log-in to the computer as usual. Once the home screen has loaded, the individual should click on the little triangle on the right side of the start menu bar. A collection of hidden icons will appear. Click on the purple globe, and then select “Access Self Service.” Add or edit information under the tabs My Info, Devices and Locations. When finished, click “Save” to complete registration. Anyone on the network who cannot find the AtHoc app logo should contact their system administrator.

“In summary, the DPTMS team – acting on behalf of installation leaders – is doing everything it can to ensure residents, employees and visitors are notified as quickly as possible if an emergency situation poses a threat to the safety and well-being of our community members,” Loden said. “In return, we ask everyone on post to increase their awareness … take the time to listen when messages are relayed and take the appropriate action based upon the response plans that should be in writing, rehearsed and well-publicized. Never assume that it’s ‘only a test’ of the system; disasters can strike anytime and every second counts.”