Nearly an hour passed before University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) officials dispatched emergency notification to students and faculty after fatal shootings allegedly committed by a professor, raising new questions about campus-based alert systems.
University President David Williams sent an eMail to faculty and students Feb. 15—three days after the shootings that killed three people and injured three others—and said campus police responded to the gunfire within minutes, but the university community was not alerted via text message or eMail.
“… Some of you are understandably troubled about the speed with which a text message alert was sent following the shootings,” Williams said in his open letter to UAH students and faculty. “As any institution would do after an incident like this, our university will conduct a complete examination of the emergency response. How to more effectively use the university’s text message system in the midst of a fast-moving, life-threatening situation will certainly be part of that review.”
Colleges nationwide have improved notification systems in the wake of the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech University, using a variety of electronic messaging to warn students and their professors about on-campus violence or oncoming extreme weather.
The need for immediate notification was evident in September 2007, when two Delaware State University students were shot near a campus dining hall, and authorities scrambled to keep students in their dorms and tell the campus community exactly what had transpired. Updates were posted on the school’s web site, but only a sliver of the student body got the message.
Williams stressed that the shootings allegedly committed by Amy Bishop, a Harvard-educated neurobiologist hired by UAH in 2003, were confined to one building, so students and faculty members were not in danger.
“The communication delay didn’t endanger anyone on campus in this instance,” Williams said in his letter. “The tragic incident was over quickly and contained to a single building. But we will learn from this situation and be better for it should we need to use this system in a future crisis.”
Emergency notification experts said colleges and universities are still getting acquainted with text and eMail alert systems, and campus leaders are wary that frequent alerts might delude the importance of emergency messaging.
“The challenge is to decide what’s an event and what isn’t an event,” said Ken Dixon, a spokesman for MIR3, a San Deigo-based company that provides notification technology to about 100 campuses. “It’s a challenge to use this kind of system correctly.”
Dixon said gunfire is among the “no brainer” uses of an emergency alert system, but college officials should be cautious in overusing the alerts to tell students about upcoming campus events like plays and fundraisers.
“If you send out everything, then the students begin to ignore them,” he said. “Colleges should make sure that they wait for something dire, and then send it out.”
Joe DiPasquale, CEO of Regroup.com, a company that provides non-emergency notification for the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa campus, said the UAH shootings should encourage campus officials to test and re-test their text and eMail alerts to make sure they’re ready for the next emergency.