Colleges deploy complex alert systems in emergencies


It’s a grim fact of life today that colleges across the country are under a constant state of vigilance, prepared to go into emergency mode if a shooter begins firing bullets on campus, as happened at Seattle Pacific University Thursday.

But although it may seem like such shootings are on the increase, they are sporadic and relatively rare, experts say.

“Campus violent crimes are more rare than in the general population among that age group. But certainly, it’s a great tragedy when it happens on campus,” said Chris Blake, chief staff officer for the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

A federal law in place since the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007 requires colleges to create notification systems that can alert the entire campus community when there is an emergency.

Washington colleges and universities have invested in systems that can deliver text messages, send alerts through Twitter and Facebook, take over the screens of every networked computer on campus, sound indoor and outdoor alarms and even lock building doors remotely.

“You can never be fast enough,” said University of Washington spokesman Norm Arkans. “Speed matters, and reliability of the system matters.”

The SPU shooting happened less than two weeks after a 22-year-old man went on a deadly rampage near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. He killed six students before taking his own life.

The worst mass shooting in U.S. history took place on a college campus, in April 2007, when a lone student gunman at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 students and faculty members before killing himself. Later, Virginia Tech was sharply criticized for failing to alert students immediately that a shooting had taken place.

The UW has also been the scene of a campus shooting. Two weeks before the Virginia Tech massacre, Jonathan Rowan, the ex-boyfriend of University of Washington employee Rebecca Griego, shot and killed Griego at UW’s Gould Hall, and then committed suicide.

“It became clear to us that if something like Virginia Tech happened here, we were not prepared to deal with it from a communications perspective,” Arkans said.

That was the beginning of a complete overhaul of the way the university dealt with emergency situations, Arkans said. The UW now has systems that can send campuswide alerts via text, email and public-address speakers.

The federal Cleary Act, a campus crime-reporting law, was amended in 2007 to require all colleges to have an emergency notification system, although it does not specify the type of system that must be used to alert the campus community.

Many colleges and universities have installed sophisticated, redundant systems that use a variety of methods to reach everyone at once.

At the UW, the centerpiece is a system that sends text messages to phones. The UW has also converted phone towers around campus into a loudspeaker system.

“I can get on my phone, right here in my office, and we can send a vocal message to every outdoor space on campus with these towers,” Arkans said.

A new system is being tested that will allow alerts to be broadcast by loudspeaker inside all campus buildings, as well.

Seattle University has a text, email and public-address system, and key external doors can be locked remotely. The system was put to the test there in January, after a student was stabbed on campus. The officers and dispatcher responded just as they had been trained, and everyone on campus was alerted, said Tim Marron, director of public safety and transportation.

Washington State University also has a crisis-notification system that works by email, phone and text, as well as a campuswide siren and loudspeaker system. Western Washington University uses texting, emails, Facebook and Twitter, and it can sound “Big Ole,” the former Georgia Pacific plant’s steam whistle, as an alert that a campus emergency is happening.

Firearms and other weapons are prohibited by law from Washington college campuses. Only law-enforcement officers are allowed to carry weapons on campus.

Like all other private universities and community colleges in Washington, Seattle University does not have a commissioned, armed police force; in this state, only four-year universities have police departments.

But there’s a Seattle Police precinct a few blocks from campus, and “they respond to campus on a regular basis to provide police support in criminal situations,” Marron said.

Seattle’s three community colleges — Seattle Central, North Seattle and South Seattle — have an emergency alert system that sends out emails and text messages, tweets and issues Facebook posts. The Seattle Central campus has a public-address system, and doors to the main campus building can be locked remotely.

Bellevue College, the largest school in the state community college system, uses similar methods. It has a system that sends a message to every college computer, taking over the screen and letting staff know of the current situation, said Bellevue College spokesman Evan Epstein in an email.

At SPU on Thursday afternoon, after shots were fired, a message was sent out campuswide via cellphone texts and emails, alerting to students and faculty to the shooting.

“Emergency! A campus lockdown has been initiated. This is not a drill,” the first email read.

Clocks throughout the campus began beeping and flashing the word “lockdown” in red letters. Doors locked automatically. Students across campus crouched underneath desks, terrified, while digital information about the crisis played out in real time on their phones.

In a news conference Thursday night, Seattle police praised the university’s quick response.

“The shooter,” said Arkans, “is everyone’s worst nightmare.”

 

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