Virginia Tech: Yet Another Wake-Up Call for Better Emergency Preparedness
Eleven years ago, Readers Digest proclaimed Blacksburg, Virginia as “The Most Wired Town in America.” So why couldn’t this wealth of technology be used to save lives during the horrific massacre at Virginia Tech? Perhaps the wrong tools were in place.
“Communication is usually the weakest link in a school emergency.”
-School security expert Ken Trump, talking with CNN’s David Mattingly, April 17, 2007
If you had asked me 10 or 12 years ago to cite an example of what it means to bridge the digital divide, I’d bet that my unequivocal answer would have been Blacksburg, Virginia. The city of Blacksburg, in conjunction with Virginia Tech, was one of the first municipalities in the country to make a commitment to developing Internet infrastructure for the public good. They even had a phenomenal online community, Blacksburg Electronic Village, a website that did a fine job at representing the community’s diverse institutions.
So as I watched the events unfold on Monday as police realized the magnitude of the shooting that had taken place on the Virginia Tech campus, one of my first thoughts was, “Of all the campuses in the country, how could this happen here?” Of course, there’s no way any institution can be 100 percent prepared for such a random, terrifying event.
As a high-tech university, VT’s students are about as wired as any other school, with laptops everywhere and cell phones close to ubiquitous. Over the coming weeks, we’ll surely see more hand-wringing and outrage over the two-hour delay that took place between the time the first shootings occurred and the first mass emails informing students and staff that an incident had taken place. I don’t want to second-guess why the university waited, or why they chose not to lock down the campus immediately. Instead, I’d like to focus on a broader technological issue - why email probably wasn’t the best way to notify everyone on campus.
There’s no shortage of email access on Virginia Tech, and the university’s telecommunication office even supports Treo smartphones for those who choose to buy them. But the reality of the situation is that many, if not most students still rely on their computers for checking email, using their phones for talking and text messaging instead. Even if a mass email had gone out earlier, would it have reached everyone in time, particularly on a campus where the majority of students are commuters?
One telling insight into what happened that morning is an email that was circulated by a university librarian. The email was posted anonymously on MySpace and elsewhere soon after the shootings, but I managed to track down the author as Bruce Pencek, who gave me permission to identify him as the author. In his email, he wrote:
I watched from upstairs, marveling at how many people were still outside, and some in the building who hadn’t heard anything. Communication of the event was very much a case of who had a cell phone or wireless device before the bandwidth got constipated. (The campus web server soon crashed, taking down a big chunk of web-based email capacity with it.) I don’t know how instructors in class were informed of the events, since the emergency phone message system goes to office phones, not personal ones. With MP3 players taking the place of car radios, I’m not surprised that people in transit to o across campus would not have heard the newscasts.
I should note that the library’s PA system is used only to warn people when the fire alarms are being tested. In the event of an actual emergency, the semi-audible closing bell rings and workers from the circulation desk walk through each floor to give that happy news to whomever they happen to see.Fortunately, the police soon started warning people through car-mounted loudspeakers every few minutes; I think this was a useful innovation since the town shooter incident at the beginning of the academic year. Even after the announcements, there were still people gawking outside.
Bruce hits upon several points worth noting. First of all, the telecommunications network was swamped: email and Web servers crashed, making it harder for those people who did have Internet access at the time to find out what was going on. Emergency messaging services that were in place for faculty went to their office phones rather than their mobile phones. And the PA system wasn’t used, though thankfully they were superceded by car-mounted loudspeakers.
Reading Bruce’s account got me interested in learning more about what systems the university had in place to alert people on campus. Last July, you may recall, I wrote about how some universities were bucking the trend seen in K-12 schools, actually making cell phones mandatory for cases of emergency. Why? Because almost every cell phone available today is able to send and receive SMS text messages. SMS infrastructure generally holds up better in times of crisis than email, and it automatically appears on your phone’s screen when you receive one. Here’s a quote from the article, discussing how Montclair State University made their decision:
After surveying students to identify specific features they’d like to see in a campus cell phone network, they partnered with Rave Wireless and Sprint/Nextel to develop the service, MSU Connect. They rolled out the program last fall, when they provided freshman living in residential halls with one semester of free service; students were then expected to pay $186 for subsequent semesters. This coming school year, all freshmen and on-campus sophomores will be required to participate in the program.
Along with providing students with local and long distance telephony, MSU Connect offers mobile classroom management tools, campus event listings, community updates and real-time public transportation information. The mobile phones are also equipped with a personal safety alert system called Rave Guardian. Utilizing the phone’s GPS capabilities, Rave Guardian allows university officials to keep track of the exact geographic location of every student at all times. It also lets students trigger a distress beacon that dispatches campus police to their location. “Police can track a student’s trip on a large screen in a bread-crumb sort of way until the student deactivates the service,” says Edward W. Chapel, who helped launch the program.
Ironically, a rumor began spreading yesterday that Rave Wireless had actually partnered with Virginia Tech, raising questions as to why the system hadn’t been used. I contacted the company, and a spokesman denied the report, saying that Rave had no relationship with VT. Perhaps part of the confusion came from a now-chilling newspaper article posted last September talking about how VT was considering text messaging broadcast applications, following another shooting incident nearby:
When Virginia Tech wanted to alert students to developments in a recent campus manhunt for an accused double murderer it relied on e-mail, the Web and messages sent to dorm phones. One method that was not available: sending text messages to cellphones. That could change.
University officials are considering following the lead of Penn State University and other schools that use text messaging to stay in contact with students for whom even e-mail is becoming passe.
The manhunt in Blacksburg for William Morva, which led to the evacuation of Squires Student Center and the first day of classes being canceled, is an extreme example of the type of situation that Tech officials would like to be able to notify students about on their cellphones.“We will certainly be investigating other kinds of communications vehicles,” Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said, though he cautioned that a text-messaging system was still a “blue sky idea” that would take investigation to implement.
The article also mentions several companies offering these types of services, including Rave Wireless, which might be why some people thought that they were in business with Virginia Tech.
It’s not just universities that are trying to figure out how text messaging can play a role in emergency response. Some K-12 schools are beginning to make the investment as well, though the target audience for the emergency notifications are generally staff and parents, not students. One company, Roam Secure, offers an alert network that can be used to send mass broadcasts receivable via email, SMS, voicemail, desktop, even XM satellite radio. Ironically, some of their clients are Virginia counties and their school districts, including King George County and Fairfax County.
It’s not just local-level entities getting in on the act. Last year, the US Department of Homeland Security partnered with the Association of Public Television Stations to expand the current emergency alert system, formerly known as the emergency broadcast system. The system was first developed to broadcast emergency announcements over TV and radio - I’m sure you’ve heard “This is a test of the emergency broadcast system” on air, followed by some annoying beeps - and now they want to expand it to digital television, the Internet and, yes, text messaging. These messages would go out on a presidential order, though, so it’s designed for national emergencies more than local ones.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a lot of questions, some potential answers, and perhaps a few more questions after that. I have no doubt that universities that don’t have mandatory cell phone requirements or SMS alert systems are going to take the idea a lot more seriously now. But will K-12 schools? I’m skeptical. There is enormous opposition to allowing students to possess phones on campus, even though many parents argue they’re necessary for emergency communications. Some administrations will respond by saying the chances of a real emergency are slim, and students can’t be trusted to use them responsibly. Yes, an emergency on the scale of Virginia Tech are few and far between, but smaller-scale emergencies do happen from time to time. When more school shootings happen - and they will happen - it’s likely that more parents will be outraged by the fact their schools made it difficult or impossible to communicate with their children. And there will come a time when we will have no choice but to allow our students to carry communications devices. It may not be this month or even this year, but it will happen.
We’re simply not prepared, in any sense of the word. Perhaps we could at least begin a more serious conversation on the topic. That would be a start. -andy
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