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College mitigates the harm of the false alarm
In response to concerns generated by a false alert reporting a violent intruder on campus in March, Columbia hosted the first of two informational sessions April 5 in Ferguson Hall in the 600 S. Michigan Ave. Building to address campus safety issues.
As reported by The Chronicle on March 9, AlertWave, the college’s emergency alert system, sent an erroneous message March 5 that a violent intruder was on campus, causing a wave of panic among students, faculty and staff. The alert was supposed to inform the community of a snow day.
The information session focused on the AlertWave system and why it malfunctioned. Alicia Berg, vice president of Campus Environment, and Robert Koverman, associate vice president of Campus Safety & Security, answered questions about the incident and what the college has done to prevent similar mishaps. Berg said she was pleased with the event turnout and considers the community’s increased interest a silver lining.
“Because of the incident with AlertWave, the college thinks it will be getting more interest in our security sessions,” Berg said. “We absolutely want to answer any questions [the campus community] has after the incident.”
AlertWave’s manufacturer, Visiplex, fixed the software glitch that caused the false alarm, according to Berg. It is highly unlikely that a malfunction such as the the March 5 incident will occur again, she said. According to Koverman, the malfunction was unique to Columbia’s AlertWave system.
The glitch stemmed from a series of default messages that were pre-installed in the system when the college purchased AlertWave, according to Koverman. Berg said the college was surprised to learn that the system had pre-installed default messages.
“[The college] is still not thrilled the incident happened, but at least the company reacted promptly,” Berg said.
According to Berg, the administration decided that after the malfunction, AlertWave will only be used to alert the campus of emergencies, such as intruders and tornadoes, rather than school closings.
“We thought using AlertWave to notify students about closings was an extra service we were offering,” Berg said. “But ultimately, a system intended for emergencies should only be used for emergencies.”
The system was fully tested during spring break to assure that all 2,000 AlertWave devices, such as LED screens and strobe lights, were functioning properly, according to Koverman. He said there were only five devices that malfunctioned during the test; however, the issue was not that they didn’t operate but that they would not turn off.
Koverman said he is currently identifying areas where more devices may be needed.
In the event of a violent intruder, the standard procedure is to call 911 then send out an AlertWave message to the affected building followed by a Send Word Now alert, the college’s mass email and phone notification system, to alert the campus community of the incident, according to Koverman.
Students have been automatically signed up to receive Send Word Now alerts for at least a year, according to Berg.
In the event of a violent intruder at a nearby university, such as Roosevelt or DePaul, the college would likely use Send Word Now to alert all students in the area, Koverman said. Each case would be handled on an individual basis, he said.
According to Berg, Campus Saf-ety & Security decides how to respond to a violent intruder, rather than rely on cross-department decision-making.
“[The college’s] emergency plan is basically an organizational structure to bring the appropriate people to make decisions on how to respond to emergencies,” she said. “In the event of a violent intruder, campus security trumps all.”
At the April 5 session, Koverman outlined how the campus should respond to a violent intruder and an AlertWave message. When an AlertWave message goes off, people need to listen to it completely before responding, he said.
When faced with a violent intruder situation, Koverman said there are three options: run, hide or fight. The best option is to run, he said, adding that if a violent
intruder enters a classroom, the best option is to fight, despite being the option people are less likely
“You only have one choice: pick up a laptop or a chair to do anything you need to do to get that stop,” Koverman said. “[Fighting] is better than not fighting.”
Martha Meegan, director of Campus Safety & Security, and Sharon Wilson-Taylor, associate vice president and dean of students, discussed the Behavioral Assessment and Violence Assessment Team, a group that was formed as part of the campus’s violence prevention plan, during the session.
The team is a collection of representatives from different campus departments who work with the office of Campus Safety & Security to deal with reports of students and staff exhibiting behavior indicating that they may be a danger to themselves or others, Meegan said.
“[The teams] are early warning systems because if we have someone who is getting increasingly disturbed we’d rather have that addressed early,” Berg said.
The team meets with the reported individual and examines the context and severity of the reported behavior before making a decision on how to proceed, such as whether a student should be on campus or whether that student should be referred to counseling services, according to Meegan.
“We push the boundaries in our artwork sometimes,” Meegan said. “It’s important for us as a community to recognize when a person needs help or an intervention.”
Wilson-Taylor explained that posts on social media websites that pertain to a member of campus or the college as a whole also fall under the team’s jurisdiction. Students or faculty who wish to report such behavior may do so by calling the Security Command Center to file a report, Meegan said.
“We would rather you call 100 times than not call the one time it might matter,” Koverman said.
The next security session will be held April 12 in Hokin Hall, 623 S. Wabash Ave., at 1 p.m.