Campus emergency expert discusses the importance of social media, text messaging

social-media-campusThe night before Byron Piatt was scheduled to speak about campus emergencies at the 2014 ACUTA conference in Dallas, Texas, his campus was experiencing an emergency of its own.

Protestors clashed with Albuquerque police on March 30 following days of demonstrations over a series of deadly police shootings. The University of New Mexico, where Piatt works as an emergency manager, lies at the heart of the city, and the confrontation spilled onto campus.

At 9 p.m., the university’s Twitter account sent out a tweet to its 19,000 followers.

“Campus residents should shelter in place due to protests and police activity at Central and Girard,” it read. “Please avoid the area.”

The police, riding horses and wearing riot gear, deployed tear gas into the crowds, sending a cloud of it rolling across the university’s Johnson Field and even, reportedly, into some dorm bedrooms. At 10 p.m. students received another tweet from the university’s account.

“UNM RAs have informed us that tear gas has been clearing out quickly. If your room is affected, please turn off AC to prevent gas spreading.”

Eight minutes later, the university tweeted “ALL CLEAR.”

Twitter is not the only way Piatt and his staff notify students during emergency situations, he said to a small crowd in Dallas less than 24 hours later. But it is an increasingly important method of communication.

“We can either be a part of the process or get left behind by it,” Piatt said, adding that in emergency situations, misinformation can quickly spread due to a lack of real information. “If individuals are not getting the info they want, they’ll put out information themselves.”

(Next page: Methods of emergency communication)

Many students, parents, faculty, and even news organizations now turn to social media first during emergencies, sometimes in lieu of contacting the university outright.

When a Purdue University student shot a fellow student in January, CNN began reporting on the incident based on a tweet. Last fall, early news reports about a stabbing at Indiana University were just chronological listings of IU’s tweets about the incident.

Even as far back as the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, students were able to gather the names of fellow students not responding to social media messages, primarily Facebook, and surmise who had been hurt or killed.

“They had a fairly accurate list of the victims in a short amount of time, when the university couldn’t release that information yet,” Piatt said.

Many methods

When sending safety alerts to students, colleges and universities have a growing number of options. At this year’s ACUTA conference, nearly 20 exhibitors focused on emergency notification.

Alertus showcased small, flashing, wall-mounted displays, as well as a product that could send safety notifications to every computer on a campus network. RedSky offered cloud-based enhanced 911 services. That same week, Rave Mobile Safety announced that more than 1,000 campuses now use its software to send emergency notifications through social media, email, text messages, and phone calls.

Meanwhile, a mobile app called In Case of Crisis is proving popular on some campuses, providing students with a one-stop place to find safety notifications and instructions about what to do in an emergency.

“Bringing all that [information] together in one place, right there on your phone, is really an important step” in making a college campus more secure,” said Chris Britton, general manager of In Case of Crisis. “No one is going to have time in the heat of the moment to go and seek out the necessary steps for what they should do during an emergency situation.”

(Next page: The importance of a plan)

In order for campuses to take advantage of so many different types of communication, there must be a detailed plan in place, Piatt said. And that’s not something the emergency manger often goes without.

He opened his ACUTA presentation with a run-through of all the emergency routes that lead out of the room and hotel. Piatt spends a lot of time thinking about plans like that, he said.

He’s been the University of New Mexico’s emergency manger for at least half a decade, and is also the commander of the NM-1 Disaster Medical Assistant Team. He even looks the part, sporting the stereotypical mustache of an emergency responder.

“I’ve been called a little anal retentive,” Piatt said.

A plan in place

One morning this past December, the University of New Mexico received a bomb threat.

The threat targeted three buildings, filled with students taking morning classes the week before final exams. Those buildings were closely nestled among 400 others, on a campus of 30,000 students, that occupied 12 square miles in the middle of New Mexico’s most populous city, at the crossroads of two major interstate highways.

At large universities like the University of New Mexico, the decisions made my emergency personal don’t just affect the campus, Piatt said.

As officials raced to get word to the university’s president and board of regents, who were in a meeting, the campus police chief gave an order to Piatt and his team. A message was quickly sent out to student and faculty: “Please evacuate Mitchell, Ortega, and Popejoy Halls at this time.”

The notification was automatically delivered through email, text message, Facebook, and Twitter. The messages appeared on both the university’s official Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as the pages of its emergency alert service, LoboAlerts.

(Next page: The PR crisis)

While police dogs and a bomb squad combed through the now-empty buildings, students and faculty stood outside in the cold waiting to be let back in. The team sent out another alert, telling students to go home and that classes would be cancelled until after noon.

Things were going smoothly by that point, Piatt recalled, until an official pointed out another complication. “What are we going to do about the 20 busloads of kids coming to campus?” the official asked.

4,000 elementary students were scheduled to arrive that afternoon to watch a performance of “The Nutcracker.” The show, like morning classes, would have to be cancelled, Piatt and his team decided.

In the end, no bombs were found that day, but one final crisis did emerge — one of public relations.

Somehow, a local news channel mistakenly reported that a bomb had been found. Piatt’s team quickly noticed the error as it made its way around Facebook, Twitter, and online discussion boards. They contacted the station and had the report corrected.

“Social media is multi-directional communication,” he said. “It’s real-time. It’s an open dialogue. It’s unstructured. Monitoring social media is important.”

Simply paying attention to social feeds can be as worthwhile as using it to communicate, Piatt said. Officials can see rumors, and confirm or deny them immediately. Sometimes a tweet might be sent out by a student before anyone even calls 911.

Live images and details of an ongoing situation can be helpful to emergency officials, but that doesn’t mean you should prioritize sending a tweet when, say, your apartment building catches on fire, Piatt warned.

“Exit the building before tweeting about it,” he said.

 Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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