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Why you should sign up for Emergency Alerts

University Police dispatchers

University Police and 911 dispatchers are responsible for issuing alerts when emergencies threaten the campus community.

A tornado tears toward campus. A man with a gun is seen prowling around Watterson Towers. A fire erupts in a school building.

How would you react if one of these emergency situations presented itself to you on campus? How would you even know about them?

Fortunately the University offers notice and guidance when these potentially dangerous situations occur, in the form of the Illinois State University Emergency Alert. The system, which was first established in the wake of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech University and is required under federal law, sends out quick, brief messages detailing an emergency and providing instructions on what do in case of a fire, a tornado, an active shooter, and other emergency situations on or near the campus.

“It is the primary method for contacting the University community with regards to an emergency,” said Don Kunde ’93, the University’s assistant director of life safety. “And so it would be very wise for the campus community to be signed up to it.”

Only about half of the approximately 26,000 campus community members—students, faculty, and staff—have signed up to receive the alerts to their mobile phones. While every campus member automatically gets the alerts via email, they must sign up online to receive text and voice messages on their cell phones.

The difference in receiving an alert could be minutes, instead of seconds, depending on which mode a person chooses. Text messages provide the quickest way to receive the alerts and have an added benefit, said Eric Hodges, the University’s associate director for emergency preparedness and response.

“If the situation requires you to move somewhere—to a shelter, outdoors, indoors, whatever—the cell phone is something you’re likely to take with you and may be your only means of communication that you take with you,” Hodges said. “And if that’s the case, it is the device that we can use to send some subsequent updates and instructions.”

Hodges said a misconception about the program is probably holding down the participation rate, which is as low as 20 percent at some universities: “’If I give the University my cell phone number, you will use it for other things.’ (However) we are not using the cell phone numbers for other things.”

This summer, the University switched emergency alert providers, from Everbridge to Rave Alert. Anyone who had signed up to the old system was automatically transferred to the new system. Rave Alert was chosen because it is integrated with the campus’ phone system and digital monitors. Officials also hope it sends messages out quicker.

“That last alert, I didn’t receive the alert until about 18 minutes after it was initially sent,” University Police Chief Aaron Woodruff said, explaining the problem may have had less to do with Everbridge and more to do with cell phone companies sending out the messages in bunches instead of all at once.

Woodruff was referring to an alert in February that was launched after a woman reported that there was a man with a gun near Watterson Towers. The report turned out to be false, illustrating that it isn’t always easy for University Police to decide when to issue an alert.

“The police department is dealing with two conflicting issues at the same time: early notification versus verifiable facts,” Hodges said. “Because very often in the beginning stages the police department will have multiple unverified sources coming in simultaneously, so how do you act on that? How do you know for certain that this potential person had a weapon on him? Well in that particular case they didn’t know for sure, but they used their best judgment. So it is better to err on that side.”

Woodruff said a lot of factors go into the decision of whether to issue an alert, and police attempt to verify information instead of upsetting the campus based on rumors.

“One, we’re looking at, What type of incident is it? Two, does it pose an immediate threat to the campus community?” he said. “For example, the bomb threat (in August)—based on the information that we had it was not an immediate threat, so we didn’t send out an emergency alert. If, however, something had changed in the course of that, we might have sent out an emergency alert.”

Kunde said the University has sent out only a handful of alerts since the system was implemented. But he and Hodges emphasized the importance of signing up.

“It is important during those early few minutes after an incident occurs that we feed the University facts,” Hodges said. “Rather than people trying to find out through rumors, or second-, or third-, or fourth-hand information. The more consistently we can send a single message to as large of population as possible as early into the incident as possible the more ….”

“They are going to be able to make a more informed personal decision in regard to their safety,” Kunde said, finishing Hodges’ thought.

Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.

 

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