Students, DPSS reflect on U-M Emergency Alert System service

Thursday, March 21, 2019 - 9:32pm

A timeline of the various U-M e-mail emergency alerts Saturday.

A timeline of the various U-M e-mail emergency alerts Saturday. Buy this photo
Design by Roseanne Chao

Max Tsao, Music, Theatre & Dance junior, was working in Mason Hall with other students Saturday afternoon when the first reports of an active shooter on the University of Michigan’s Central Campus were publicized. In one of the student’s group chats, at approximately 4:44 p.m., one student alerted the group “There’s an active shooter near Mason.” Many students responded to the text in confusion, one asking “How am I supposed to get to work?” and another, “Do you know if anyone got hurt?”

One student texted, “Apparently the suspect moving towards UGLi. Please leave Central.” From there, one student shared the link to the Washtenaw Sheriff Office’s police scanner.

Many students said there were reports the shooter was going toward the Brown Jug. Another said “three shooters total” with a screenshot of a different group message, while another said “two in custody.” In this group chat, there were messages of “someone got shot” and “white man holding gun.”

This group chat began discussing the incident about 20 minutes before the first alert from the University’s alert system.

Saturday’s events spurred widespread confusion, and multiple students have found the experience to have exposed weaknesses in the University’s emergency protocols as well as how quickly information can spread on campus through informal channels in times of crisis. The Daily reviewed emergency protocols, University systems and training and personal experiences to look at the day’s events and what they mean in a nation plagued by gun violence.

I.

From DPSS’ perspective

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Madeline Hinkley/Daily

Melissa Overton, deputy chief of police and public information officer for the Division of Public Safety and Security, said in terms of the response from local law enforcement, the situation was handled well. She commended the collaboration of the various agencies, including Ann Arbor Police and Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, in the area and the reactions from the community.

“We were very lucky that we had staff already out at the location of the incident and we were there so quickly,” Overton said. “We couldn’t be happier with the response from the community, the neighboring agencies, because if this ended up being a real situation, this is exactly what we would hope for.”

Overton said the main goal of officers is to get to the scene is quickly as possible and then, as soon as the officers are dispatched, the emergency alert is sent out. Some may have gotten it sooner than others — notably, doctors may have been notified prior to others on campus.

Regarding the communication of different law enforcement agencies, Overton said everyone trains together for these scenarios and signs a mutual aid agreement. At a site, there is an incident commander in charge of all agencies helping to investigate the situation. Everything happens through this person in order to ease communication and coordination, according to Overton.

When an incident like this occurs, DPSS utilizes their campus-wide emergency alert system. Students, faculty and staff can sign up for voice message and text message alerts, and in theory, everyone in the University email system receives these alerts via email.

DPSS started receiving reports of a potential active shooter at 4:35 p.m., according to a statement from the Office of Public Affairs. DPSS’ first email alert urging campus to “run, hide, fight” came at 5:06 p.m.

However, LSA sophomore Sumaya Tabbah, a member of the DPSS student advisory board and of the Muslim Students’ Association, said she did not receive any email notifications at all.

“For the emails, I didn’t even get an email, which is concerning,” Tabbah said.

Overton said DPSS has received many of these complaints of people receiving delayed alerts or receiving none, and is currently analyzing its system to figure out why this happened.

“We did receive multiple complaints on the system,” Overton said. “ … We are aware that some of the alerts took a lot longer than they should have, and we are looking into that.”

Overton urged people to download DPSS’ app, which is geared more toward alerts and push notifications. Business senior Elizabeth Fakhoury, chair of DPSS Student Advisory Board, said the board has been working with DPSS to promote the app and better configure it for students. She noted the student-DPSS disconnect has been a focus since the board’s inception.

“Not signing up for alerts and being in the know-how is what we were tackling within the last year, and so DPSS created a Facebook page to update students on what’s going on and so through all of this, they were updating the alerts and they were saying you can sign onto emergency alerts here,” Fakhoury said.

Currently, the emergency alerts via text are received via an opt-in system. Students, faculty and staff do not receive these unless they explicitly sign up. Overton said DPSS has recommended transitioning to an opt-out system for years, but that this decision is ultimately up to a higher University authority.

Tabbah said she and other Muslim leaders on campus met with University President Mark Schlissel Wednesday morning to discuss some of these issues. She said making the alerts an opt-out system is a question they raised.

“But for the text messages, we asked Schlissel this morning why is it an opt-in system instead of an opt-out system,” Tabbah said. “It should be you’re automatically signed up for it and then if you feel like you don’t want to get those then you should opt-out, instead of putting the responsibility on the students.”

According to Tabbah, Schlissel’s response was that in the past, they had to make it opt-in due to complications with legality. Tabbah said Schlissel speculated that pay-per-text phone plans may have been the reason.

II.

The spread of (mis)information

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Max Kuang/Daily

Michael Colegrove, a college safety consultant, said when there is a gap in time between an incident and when there is official information released, people cling onto information, regardless if it is verified or not.

“The need for almost instantaneous communication is necessary, especially communication from a known source,” Colegrove said. “What happens if you have a gap that exists between the time of the incident and the time the word gets out from an official source — that vacuum is filled with a lot of misinformation.”

This unverified information spread rapidly across campus, giving different people unique experiences.

Standing on the steps of the Graduate Library reading her poem at the vigil commemorating the lives of people killed in the New Zealand mosques shooting, Fadwa Ashur, a student at Eastern Michigan University, saw the two police officers running towards the Diag before she heard them. DPSS had been at the event already, as organizers knew this was an event that could potentially attract hate and violence. When the police yelled repeatedly at the crowd to move, she ran with friends into the Graduate Library, where they stayed for two hours.

Since she was not University-affiliated, she did not sign up for or receive the DPSS alerts. In the Graduate Library, Ashur discovered her phone had no cell service and could not connect to the University’s internet network. According to Ashur, she received information from a TV in the room they were in.

“There was a TV in the middle of the room (I was in) that showed the three alerts, (my friends and I) got (the alerts) through that,” Ashur said. “I don’t know about other people, but I couldn’t connect to MGuest so I didn’t have Internet, and I had no network… I couldn’t call anyone through my phone. I couldn’t even reach out to my family or anything… That was the scariest part.”

Ashur explained she and her friends saw police officers running nearby about one hour into hiding after they had taken refuge in the Graduate Library. The officers were responding to a false fire alarm; however, Ashur said she and her friends had no way of knowing this. Based on the alerts they had seen, Ahsur said they assumed the police were responding to an active shooter.

At 5:28 p.m., in a video obtained by The Daily, an announcement can be heard informing students of the false fire alarm. The announcement also said the shooter was unconfirmed and told students they could either stay in the Graduate Library or leave. Ashur expressed she felt the announcement could not confirm they would be safe leaving, so she and her friends stayed in the Graduate Library.


“My friends and I stayed (in Hatcher), and I think only a couple of people left,” Ashur said. “Because that (announcement) was not reassuring… ‘Unconfirmed’ means they did not tell us whether or not there was a shooter. We stayed there, we were like we’re not going to risk leaving.”

LSA senior Brendon Cho expressed confusion at this announcement. He heard people inside the Graduate Library were told to stay put, while the police scanner speakers were saying they should evacuate.

“From what I’m told there were conflicting reports from the police and the police radio, as well as from the announcement they had in Hatcher,” Cho said. “Apparently the police really wanted everyone to clear from the Hatcher building, but they were told by the PA system to kind of stay there and hunker down at Hatcher, so it was kind of hard to find who was really right and who to trust.”

University alum Brittney Williams, who was in town visiting on Saturday, voiced her disappointment with the University’s communication protocol in a tweet that as of publication has received 200 likes and 28 retweets. In an interview with The Daily, Williams further questioned why certain staff members received phone calls immediately while other staff and students didn’t.

“(The University’s communication protocol) was mindblowing, in particular because the people (my friends and I) were checking in on while we were waiting for an official alert were current students, who in my opinion should’ve known pretty much immediately,” Williams said. “And also staff who work directly with students in res (sic) life… especially directors of halls close to the incident, they didn’t receive those calls. But the (IT employee) I know on staff doesn’t work directly with students at all and they received that phone call. That was upsetting for me.”

On North Campus, LSA freshman Alexandra Dortzbach was in Bursley Residence Hall when text messages started streaming in. Dortzbach said she heard about the potential active shooter situation through multiple group chats about 30 minutes before receiving a push notification alert through the University of Michigan app.

Dortzbach expressed activity on North Campus seemed minimally affected by the active shooter threat.

“I’d say it was business as normal,” Dortzbach said. “We felt pretty removed. There was just a lot of talk and speculation about what was going on … all panic I saw was on behalf of people on Central Campus and their friends. None of it was about something actually occurring on North Campus.”

Sonya Lewis, Medical School instructor and member of the executive committee of Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence, was in the Diag just before the incident, attending the Women’s March. She said people got alerts before she did and she did not know what was going on until her daughter’s friend told her, and the misinformation being spread contributed to her confusion and fear.

“Because these mass shootings are so common in our society, it didn’t seem outlandish, it didn’t seem like we were overreacting, it seemed — with the information we were getting — very, very real, and our fear was very real,” Lewis said.

Lewis also said throughout the incident, she was receiving conflicting reports. She noted people attributing it to balloon popping, a report from The Daily Twitter account of multiple students wounded — which was later deleted and apologized for — and stories of different shooters in different places.

“We started seeing things about balloons and that it wasn’t really a gun situation,” Lewis said. “These things were happening in parallel with tweets about people being wounded and stuff like that. It was very hard to know what was actually happening.”

Ashur expressed the University’s alert system especially affects the Arab and Muslim community and wants the University to specifically apologize to these communities.

“I want the University of Michigan just to acknowledge ‘We were not clear during this situation,’” Ashur said. “There was a general statement of ‘Everyone has suffered, here’s some counseling.’ But people who were struggling to hold onto their identity of Arab, Muslim, and American … University of Michigan is not acknowledging we are suffering the most. … There was a failure on (the University’s) part, why not just say, ‘You guys not only suffered after what happened in New Zealand, you suffered once again in this (active shooter scare) and we are so sincerely apologetic.’”

III.

Run, hide, fight

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Courtesy of Colin Beresford

LSA sophomore Soraya Zrikem ran from the Diag to the Law Quad when police interrupted the vigil, ultimately separating her from her mother and godmother, who had attended the vigil with her. Once in the Law Quad, she said employees did a good job of making sure there were barricades, but were unable to answer important questions.

Zrikem holds an on-campus job overseeing a study space and said she received no training for emergency events like what took place Saturday. However, she said she was aware of some faculty who did.

“While most of the time when you’re monitoring those spaces, not a lot is expected of you, if there is an emergency, you are the person that needs to be able to lead that group automatically, otherwise panic will ensue,” Zrikem said. “I don’t think it should be expected of me — as a random student — to know where a safe space is in all of my school buildings. That’s just not reasonable, and it would just be a lot to expect out of students, so at least employees should have that.”

An FBI study found the majority of shootings last less than five minutes. The study also exerted said civilians should be well-trained because many end before police arrive.

The slogan “Run, Hide, Fight” was created as a protocol for people in active shooter situations. It is on DPSS web pages related to active shooter preparedness and was included in a message from the alert system on Saturday. This slogan is widely considered a universal practice for active shooter situations, according to Cosgrove.

According to a Department of Homeland Security document, run, the first step, means flee the scene if you can. Hide, the next step, means find a place that’s out of the attacker’s sight while remaining quiet and to create a barricade if possible. The final step, fight, means to find an object to use as a weapon — such as a fire extinguisher, backpack, book or chair — and attempt to incapacitate the attacker as the last resort.

However, not everyone in the community was aware of this protocol before the incident. Williams said she thought the “Run, Hide, Fight” portion of this alert lacked clarification, especially since some students may not have understood the instructions given without context.

“The (Run, Hide, Fight) notification just added to what was turning into mass hysteria in that moment,” Williams said. “People are already anxious because they don’t know what’s going on, now they receive a formal notification that there is some sort of incident, whether unconfirmed or not, and what they’re instructed to do has no clarification. … Three of the people in the room (with me) were in a group chat with a lot of students in it, and a lot of the responses in the chat were like ‘What does ‘Run, Hide, Fight’ even mean?’”

Currently, DPSS requires students to watch an active shooter safety training video during orientation. Beyond that, University community members can request training workshops by going to the Presentations and Training section under Prevention and Education on DPSS’ website. Overton said the decision to make other training sessions mandatory would have to come from a higher University authority.

Fakhoury said the advisory board has been discussing further mandatory training, but brought up the point that students may be less interested in required courses. She highlighted DPSS’ capable guardian course — a training meant for people who want to be able to step up in an emergency situation.

“Looking into what the capable guardian is, it really fits those people who have that vested interest, so possibly marketing it more to those freshmen and other people who have an interest is something that we can look at,” Fakhoury said.

This issue of getting all students to engage with safety training is a large obstacle for DPSS, Tabbah said.

“How do we get all of the students this general training, and something that they don’t forget after freshman orientation,” Tabbah said. “I think that’s in general DPSS’ biggest struggle with students — how do you get them to care about safety when it’s not usually our number one priority?”

Overton acknowledged the video may not resonate with incoming freshmen who are already getting bombarded with information at orientation. However, she encouraged students and other University affiliates to sign up for training, as many officers are readily available to conduct them.

Zrikem said it is important employees are ready to take action in emergencies and, depending on location, know how to get information from superiors. She also noted how DPSS was called in for the vigil because organizers knew this could be a space that could attract hate, so she hopes this is a learning experience for them.

“If I was an employee in Mason, I should not be waiting to hear what higher-ups are telling me — I should know exactly how to respond in these types of emergencies,” Zrikem said. “In places that were farther away from the immediate panic zone, higher-ups should’ve been more in conversation with them, but I think that in the places close by, it was important people knew exactly what to be doing.”

IV.

What happens next?

In the wake of Saturday’s scare, the University and DPSS have taken action in reaching out to campus to offer support and receive feedback. Immediately following the scare, the University held gatherings in the Michigan League on Saturday night and Sunday morning with Counseling and Psychological Services representatives. Tuesday night, a DPSS officer spoke to the Central Student Government assembly about active shooter preparedness and the University emergency alert system. Thursday afternoon, DPSS stationed themselves in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library to register people for the emergency alerts.

Regarding long-term improvement, Fakhoury said the advisory board is meeting with DPSS’ Executive Director to discuss alert and training initiatives. She emphasized this change will not be immediate but instead will require meetings with different people in the student community.

“We haven’t relayed anything yet to them, because we really need to sit down face to face and kind of brainstorm as a group before we meet with them,” Fakhoury said. “... Right now, I think it’s just gauging how students kind of have an idea of how DPSS felt this went, but we’re trying to get more of the student response.”

Overton further emphasized DPSS’ desire to improve communication between campus security and the community, especially as the technology around us advances.

“We’re always trying to improve our communication,” Overton said. “As technology is changing, and as even the different social media platforms and systems that students and staff and faculty use, we transition that.”

For the future, Overton urged people to recognize the danger in listening to police radio updates, as the information is all speculation.

Tabbah said now more than ever is the time for the campus community to engage with DPSS and offer their recommendations.

“I think now is a great opportunity for people who feel like they have suggestions or recommendations for DPSS to reach out because that is what they’re there for, or to reach out to members on the advisory board,” Tabbah said. “At the end of the day they are here to serve us and so we have to basically recommend to them how we feel that can best be done.”