Wednesday at 8:55 a.m., an emergency alert — in the form of text messages, emails, phone calls and social media — notified students and faculty of a reported man with a gun entering the Chemistry Building. It was later discovered that the weapon was not real, and instead was a “rubberized” replica used for ROTC training. While this event has shed light on the potentially serious concerns with emergency safety communication and procedure, the incident that created this situation was the result of an oversight. In response, ROTC has said it will implement new procedures, which will hopefully prevent another occurrence.
The event illuminated shortcomings in the University’s system in responding to a potential real, active shooter or other situations of imminent danger. The original alert was delayed in reaching many intended recipients, and many students were uninformed about the event for a period of time that could have proven dangerous had the situation been a genuine threat. Further, both students and faculty demonstrated limited understanding of emergency protocol. Though this situation was fortunately a false alarm, it revealed the dire need to improve campus response to similar situations in the future.
While the University Police sent out its alert within minutes of learning that there was a possible armed suspect on campus, cellular service providers, weather conditions and other technological problems created a lag in when students and faculty received the information. Many did not receive the message at all. These initial alerts are incredibly important as they allow students to take the necessary precautions to avoid exposing themselves to danger in the crucial minutes before law enforcement arrives to contain the situation. While text messages and e-mails are logical forms of communication to widely disseminate information, both are subject to the unreliability of cellular service and internet connections. University Police Chief Robert Neumann has said that DPSS is constantly working to improve their emergency alert system. Obviously, it’s impossible to create a 100 percent fail-proof alert system, but the discovery and implementation of more reliable forms of communication for future crises — such as a P.A. system or lockdown alarm system similar to fire alarms — may save lives.
In the meantime, campus safety can be significantly improved if more students and staff sign up for the University emergency alerts. According to a DPSS spokesperson, LESS than 35 percent of students are subscribed to receive DPSS text messages. The more students that sign up for this service, the more widely urgent information will be spread across campus, decreasing the chance that anyone will be late in receiving potentially life-saving information. Changing the status quo from an opt-in system to an opt-out one could make a tremendous difference.
Concerns also arose in regard to the scarcity of information in the DPSS alerts. Even after the “all clear” message, students were unsure of what had happened and felt uneasy resuming normal activities without a full explanation. In crisis events, the priority is to notify all necessary personnel as quickly as possible; brevity is expected and often necessary. Even the “all clear” resolution message is time-sensitive for reducing undue stress. But, afterward, when all urgent alerts have been sent out, DPSS should consider delivering a follow-up alert summarizing the situation. The DPSS spokesperson says that these emergency alerts are limited to a 100 character limit. If this restriction becomes limiting, DPSS should alert students that more information can be found online on its website. It is better to err on the side of excess information rather than too little, especially in emergency situations.
In addition to the communication concerns, this incident raises questions about the emergency preparedness of University staff and faculty. Some graduate student instructors, if not all, are not required to undergo emergency protocol information or training sessions. Even if the University continues to forgo critical training for all employees, it should mandate a safety training session for faculty who are routinely overseeing large groups of students — professors, lecturers, GSIs, etc. This will not only improve the safety of both staff and students, but can prevent panic and chaos if students know that faculty members are properly trained. Mandatory emergency training is widely required in K-12 education and with large classes at the university level, such courses become even more critical.
Emergencies are unpredictable and maybe even inevitable, but with continual improvements to DPSS communication systems and proper training for University faculty, tragedies can be prevented.