Is It an Emergency if No One Is Listening?

During a rainy February evening, Jackson State University chemistry researcher Andrea Michalkova Scott walked out of the science building and headed to her car.

She never made it.

A man with a gun attacked Scott, 36, a native of Slovakia, demanding her purse. She refused, knowing that her green card was in it. The assailant and possibly two accomplices grabbed her purse and found only $5. During the attack the armed robber shot her twice, beat her, and the men fled the scene, leaving Scott with a bullet in the back of her neck and a broken jaw, according to news reports. She likely would have bled to death had it not been for a brave student who came to her rescue and called 911.

The police immediately called Curtis Johnson, the director of the President’s Office of Accountability and Coordination at Jackson State University (JSU) in Jackson, MS. “I didn’t immediately send an alert out; I went to the scene. We have to be cautious when we send an alert because if the person is one of the people on your system, then they get the information as to what you plan to do.”

Police believed the assailants had fled campus, so Johnston delayed sending out an emergency alert for roughly 10 minutes as he surveyed the scene. “You want to make sure that you don’t send a notice out before the police have an opportunity to tell you whether or not the scene is still hot,” he said.

Next, Johnson headed to the JSU call center, where he logged onto a desktop computer and entered a message that was routed to several different sources, including land-line telephones, handheld devices, cell phones, faxes, e-mails, and text messages.

He also activated a JSU Blue Alert — named after the school’s color — that notifies the campus community via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media resources. The communication raced through the campus like wildfire.

The alert system worked as planned; much of the community was aware of the situation and no one else was hurt. Eventually the shooter was apprehended, although the two other partners-in-crime remain at large, according to Johnson.

The downside of the system, said Johnson, is that not everyone on campus got the notification directly from him. JSU still struggles to convince students to sign up for emergency alerts. Despite the tragedies in recent years, such as the Virginia Tech and Columbine High School shootings, students are still hesitant to reveal their cell phone numbers to authorities.

Student Buy-In

Twenty percent of Jackson State’s students and 34 percent of faculty are signed up for the Everbridge Aware emergency notification system. Johnson would like to see that number reach 75 percent.

There are other alert systems on the 200-acre campus, which spans three separate sites and includes a football stadium that holds 63,000 spectators. There are sirens equipped with vocal capabilities and emergency call boxes.

Before the incident, the University was in the midst of a $3M emergency systems renovation. New lighting and fencing had already been installed, but the second phase of the project that includes additional lighting, signage, and road access was put on the fast track to help put at ease a nervous community.

Scott, the shooting victim, has also launched a fundraising initiative to beef up security.

Given its urban setting and the fact that it’s located in a tornado zone, the campus is a central point for various emergency situations. It was the evacuation spot during Hurricane Katrina. It’s also the evacuation site for Tulane University in New Orleans and an official emergency location for the federal health department.

The campus is also near a major highway and railroad routinely used for the transportation of chemicals. The University has 50 buildings on its main campus and is open to the surrounding residential area.

Johnson has made a concerted effort to forge a relationship with the outlying community and police department (the city’s chief of police is the former Jackson State security chief) in order to keep communication channels open. The campus’s sirens are connected with the city’s sirens, and the University provides the 18 community associations with laptops and weather radios so they are aware of emergency responses.

Campus in the Hills
Whether a campus is located in a bustling city or the solitude of the country, administrators are faced with similar communication challenges.

Deep in the southwest hills of Portland, OR, behind tall Douglas fir trees and blossoming azaleas, sits Lewis & Clark College. Its 56 buildings are contained within one location, but the dense forest that surrounds the campus makes it difficult to see from structure to structure in some areas. In addition, residential houses surround the campus.

Tim O’Dwyer, a 28-year veteran of Portland’s police force and former state FBI agent, is the director of campus safety. A year ago, he helped the campus launch a new campus notification system — Blackboard Connect — that allows him to alert the campus from any computer or telephone.

But like Jackson State, Lewis & Clark College has a hard time getting its students to sign up for the alert system. O’Dwyer said that 22 percent of the student body and 45 percent of faculty have opted in, although not all of them have included a cell phone and/or text notification information.

“Students are concerned about handing their cell phone numbers over to the College because there are some privacy concerns that they have, and they may simply feel that we are not going to use the phone numbers the way that we tell them that we will. We expressly tell them that they will only be used for emergency purposes,” said O’Dwyer.

Budget Restraints
Studies show that text messages are most immediate way to connect with students, he said, followed by calls to cell phones and e-mails.

Budget restraints have hampered O’Dwyer’s efforts so far to install sirens, loudspeaker systems, or reader boards. So he relies on Blackboard Connect for electronic messages along with old-fashioned campus security techniques such as security personnel driving around campus with a bullhorn.

The chain of command generally starts with the campus security dispatcher, who is trained in emergency response and will either call the Portland police and/or O’Dwyer, depending on the event. O’Dwyer is routinely the one who has the information the quickest, the authority to make response decisions, and the ability to send out campus alerts. He consults with the president and the public relations director as events unfold.

Avoiding Panic
However, in reality, emergency alerts are not commonplace at Lewis & Clark.

The most recent threat was last August, when Portland police were called to a nearby home for a possible burglary. Because police cars were parked on the main access road to the college, O’Dwyer opted to use the message alert system to let the campus community know what was going on, even though he didn’t have all the information he wanted.

“It’s extremely difficult to know right up front, but of course people want to know what’s going on. One needs to take a little bit of time to try to make a determination of what is really going on because it does a disservice to everyone to send out a message that different people can draw different inferences about,” said O’Dwyer.

He added that it’s crucial to make sure information is accurate so that mistakes can be mitigated, especially in this age of instant messaging.

“It can create a panic situation if one sends out information that is incomplete. That’s why it’s really helpful to try and get as much information as possible before sending these things out,” he said.

Following up on leads from the campus community on strange behavior is one of many ways Lewis & Clark’s campus security team gathers evidence.

O’Dwyer recalls an event that occurred two days after the Virginia Tech incident in which a student arrived on campus wearing a bullet belt over his pants. It was the same outfit the man had been wearing for months, but given that the shooting on the Virginia campus was still fresh in people’s minds, a staff member alerted security.

It wasn’t immediately clear if there was a danger, so O’Dwyer conducted a quick search of the campus, but couldn’t find the student. He met with college officials and crafted a message that went out to campus via e-mail. “This was before Blackboard Connect, and at that time, I didn't have the ability to send out a message to the entire community. I either had to go through the provost’s (my then boss) office, or one of the deans,” he said.

The student was eventually located and was carrying only spent ammunition casings in the belt, so any potential threat was quickly abated.

But the incident did provide administrators with a real situation and prompted an examination, and eventual launch, of the Blackboard Connect for Higher Ed system.

The largest hurdle for colleges is to get the student population to provide their cell phone numbers in order to receive first-hand alerts. Without access, security officials must rely on individuals to forward messages or multiple systems that come at a larger expense. The risk is that the campus community isn’t getting accurate and timely information, particularly if the danger is immediate and constantly changing.

Rhonda Morin is a writer based in Oregon. She’s the former editor-in-chief of Oregon Health News, a public policy publication. She has also served as an editor for Thomas Magazine, and associate editor for a national computer trade publication. Rhonda can be contacted at 503/912-1975 or [email protected]