Friday, August 29, 2008

Emergency Alerts via Facebook/Myspace?

Some colleges are experimenting with the idea of having emergency alerts for the campus community posted on Facebook and My Space. The idea is to make social networks interactive,  allowing details about  disaster to be reported to emergency officials from "on-the-ground", "while it happens", so to speak. This was reported in an article recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But other campus officials feel that this isn't the way to go because the network then could be a conduit for wrong, false, or misleading information-and the posting of rumors- which could make a situation worse and possibly do more harm than good.

Do you think your campus should allow interactive emergency alerts?

Buz has several thoughts on this:
  • This whole business of schools feeling that they have to "alert" students immediately to a crisis is sort of going ga-ga. It started with Virginia Tech, when the campus police didn't notify the student body that two students had been found shot to death in a dorm. The idea sprung from the prevalence of cell phones, text messages, and email. Like, shouldn't we all have been told, so that................................we'd do : What?!  The campus police believed that they had a confined criminal action and even had the suspect in custody. So, what was the point in telling everyone about it, especially since a press release would be done when all the relevant facts were in (of course, they weren't). I suppose that if they thought a wild, deranged killer was on the campus (he would be back soon enough): what would they have told the huge campus to do? Run? Go Home? Go to your rooms and barricade yourselves in? It was not clear then, nor is it clear now, what, if anything could have stopped him from going to the building and opening  fire. They had no idea who they were looking for other than to "inform" the campus to "use caution".
  • Your consultant remembers the case at the College of Notre Dame last year when their new emergency notification system "worked". A woman student reported that she had been abducted and the suspect was on campus and armed. An increasingly strident and alarming number of alerts were sent to the students, at one point causing 8 women to barricade themselves in a bathroom. A huge police response followed as the alarms became more filled with impending danger. It turned out that the woman student made the whole thing up as a result of a dispute with her boyfriend. So, the electronics of the system worked, but the facts didn't warrant the panic. (By the way, betcha, 24-1, the student was NOT expelled from CND. She was probably "counseled".)
  • Then there was the case at Loyola up the street from CND. An Asian student, looking a bit like the VT guy, engaged in a "social Psychology experiment", as part of a class project,  to gauge people's reactions to unusual behavior. So he went into the Loyola dining hall dressed in fatigues, and began talking loudly to no one but himself about injuring people and destroying the school with explosives, etc. Students nearby heard this (as he planned), and called campus police who then called city police (he hadn't planned on this). Buz did not learn of the emergency alerts which went out, and has a lot of respect for Loyola management of their campus police, but can just imagine the alert and the kind of instructions which might have  gone out. It turns out that the instructor wanted the students to do minor things to disturb other people, like cutting in line, or invading another's space; it apparently never occurred to her/him that he/she should be thinking of or mentioning VT. And neither, apparently, did the student, who was Asian-looking, and wearing fatigues--just like the Virginia Tech shooter. I guess it's a good thing that Maryland has not been captured by the concealed-carry-on-campus crowd.
  • And then there was the murder of the student near Morgan several blocks away on Cold Spring Lane. The Morgan Police didn't say much when they activated the emergency notification system, except to say there was a shooting and to "use caution" or some such.
  • (Of course, these systems are good for sounding the "all clear" once a crisis is over.)
Anyway, schools have spent a lot of money on these systems since VT, but it isn't at all clear that they would be any good in a campus shooting type emergency. By its nature, an emergency is something terrible happening right now. By the time everyone got on their Blackberries and blogged about it, it would probably be rumors and misinformation; it would be good for the administration to report what they know/knew, but that's about all.

From having been involved in several emergencies (many?) during my career, I have learned that information is a precious commodity: it comes fast, furious, and is is often ever-changing and incomplete. The real challenge from the perspective of the command post is: relying only on useful confirmed information, or working to make it reliable as soon as possible. The danger of rumors or "playing around" is high. Of course, during a long-term "emergency", such as Katrina, or a blizzard, an information exchange system might be useful. But, on  balance, an authoritative source only would be best.  School can and should experiment with it a bit, but one only has to read some of the posts on your newspaper's talk forum to see the danger of allowing open, unmoderated commenting.


MJB said...

All I know is, Loyola has started testing their campus alert system, and it's no fun for neighbors like ourselves. They tested it this Monday, with blaring sirens and some robot voice over the loudspeaker. The dogs started barking, the baby started crying, and because of the echo you can't understand a word of what's being said on the alert.
There's got to be a better way!

buzoncrime said...

mjb---Sorry you were disturbed. Hopefully, they won't test the things very often. And I'm surprised you could hear them in Evergreen.

It's all sort of silly: by the time campus police get word of an "active shooting" going down, it is usually the case that it is already over. But I guess these campuses feel they need these notification systems, if nothing else, to CYA in case something happens and there is a suit and/or to mollify the parents of the kids who are paying $40K to go there.

The weak link is: what does security say over the PA system to tell the students what to do. In most cases, things will be happening so fast and furious that there isn't a whole lot of value which can be said. Now, a tornado coming would be a good use, but the risk of having these systems, particularly PA systems is overuse with non information, so that the students don't really pay much attention anymore.