College responds to security malfunction

By Tyler Eagle

PANIC STRUCK THE campus March 5, causing students, faculty and staff to hide under desks, some sending out concerned tweets and texts to their loved ones, all because of a false alarm. 

At approximately 11:30 a.m., AlertWave, the college’s mass-notification system, malfunctioned and announced there was a violent intruder on campus instead of sending a weather advisory about the college closing at 3 p.m. because of a snowstorm, according to Robert Koverman, associate vice president of Safety & Security. 

Koverman was notified by college officials about the closing, and said he ran a successful test message through AlertWave in the Security Command Center regarding the school closing. However, the wrong message was disseminated when he posted the actual alert, he told The Chronicle. 

“We knew within seconds that the false message was broadcast within all the buildings because we immediately got calls from our security officers,” Koverman said. 

To notify the campus of the false alarm, the college sent an email at 11:50 a.m. rather than using AlertWave because security feared the system would malfunction again and send the same false message, according to Alicia Berg, vice president of Campus Environment. 

“We didn’t want to make things worse by sending out the same bad message,” Berg said. “Who knows what else would have happened?” 

Following the incident, the administration said it is displeased with AlertWave and is considering alternative contractors but will be cautious when choosing because they want to be thorough, Berg said. 

“If we decide we need to install a new system, we want to do it correctly,” Berg said. “We certainly don’t want a repeat of this again.” 

According to a security official at Benedictine University, a college that also uses AlertWave, the college has never had a malfunction with the system. 

Berg said that in the event of a real violent intruder, AlertWave only sends out a message to the affected building. 

Send Word Now, the system that uses email and phone messages, would be used to alert the rest of the campus of the situation, Koverman said. Security officers would be posted outside the affected building to keep students from entering, he added. 

On March 8, Berg sent out an email to the campus community apologizing for the malfunction. According to her, campus safety 


 policies are currently under review and informational sessions on campus safety procedures will be available to faculty and students within the next few weeks. 

The email also said that group therapy sessions will be offered this week Monday through Thursday at noon in Counseling Services at 731 S. Plymouth Court. 

Jennie Fauls, assistant director of first-year writing in the English Department, said she is afraid to work at Columbia following the incident because of poor communication by Campus Safety. 

She said faculty members in the first year writing program deal with emotionally unstable students on a regular basis and that contributed to the fear some staff members felt when the security system malfunctioned. 

“Not one person didn’t picture a man with an assault rifle tearing through our halls,” she said. 

Josh Sibley, senior film & video major, was in his Writing for Television class in the 600 S. Michigan Ave. Building when his class heard the alarm. 

According to Sibley, his professor first wanted to evacuate the classroom until the class heard the term “violent intruder.” The professor went to lock the door but was unable to because it had no lock and had to move the class to another room on a different floor. 

“That was the most frightening moment of all,” Sibley said. “If this really did happen, how do we actually keep safe?” 

Koverman said students should pile furniture in front of the door regardless of whether it has a lock. Unless they have a specific target in mind, intruders are usually looking for random victims, so piling things in front of the door would act as a deterrent, he said. 

He said the proper protocol is to stay in place, lock the door, move to the corner of the rom, turn off the lights, remain quiet and call 911 emergency dispatch. 

Camille Morgan, project coordinator of Exhibition & Performance Spaces, was in the middle of a staff meeting in the 1104 S. Wabash Ave. Building when AlertWave played the incorrect message. 

According to Morgan, students in the building’s Conaway Center were unaware of how to respond to the alert, causing some students to leave the building or remain where they were seated. 

“It made me wonder, do students even know what to do if they are on campus without a faculty or staff member during an emergency?” Morgan asked. 

Koverman said he understands the angst that students and faculty felt and apologized for any distress the incident caused. He said he feels confident that students know what do in emergency situations because of the practice drills students go through in high school regarding lockdowns. 

Morgan said she and her colleagues locked and barricaded their office doors for 10 minutes, turned off the office’s lights and stayed quiet until they heard more information from her supervisor. She said she was surprised to learn that 911 dispatch had not heard from Columbia when her supervisor called the emergency line. 

According to Berg, 911 emergency dispatch is only automatically notified during a fire emergency. 

Police arrived on campus after several people called 911, Koverman said. Security knew within minutes that police were on the way to the campus through police scanners in the command center and the campus safety patrol car. Campus security dialed 911 to let emergency dispatch know that it was a false alarm, Koverman said. 

Heather Minges Wols, assistant professor in the Science and Mathematics Department, said she and her students had anticipated the intruder alert being false because it followed the email announcement sent at 11:22 a.m. stating afternoon classes would be cancelled. She said the college should rethink how AlertWave is used. 

“With all the other ways we get announcements, maybe that’s not the system we need for cancelled classes,” Minges Wols said. “Maybe the system should only be used for real emergencies.” 

Koverman said the faculty members he talked to reacted appropriately to the situation. 

“I am so proud of our staff and faculty that were in the classrooms,” Koverman said. “When the faculty heard the alarm, their instincts and the things we posted online kicked in.”