Administration reviewing why MU Alert ‘failed’
The review was spurred by the April 19 bomb threat.
Apr. 26, 2015
University administrators are continuing to review MU Alert after two weeks of criticism from students. No timeline has been given for potential changes at this time.
The review was prompted by a shooting, an armed robbery, a bomb threat and a report of shots fired, and how MU Alert notified student differently for each of these situations.
First, there was the April 15 officer-involved shooting in Hitt Street Parking Garage, in which MU Alert notified students about the incident after the suspect’s death. Administrators said April 16 that “the lapse in procedures will be corrected” after the initial MU Alert failure.
Since that statement, there was an armed robbery April 19 for which police officers were dispatched to the 1100 block of Hamilton Way. The armed robbery occurred at 2 a.m. MU Alert notified students of the incident at 3:08 a.m. Then, on April 22, MU Alert only notified students of a bomb threat at the MU Student Center via twitter. The reason behind not notifying students was because the bomb threat was “localized,” MU officials said, and only the students in the threatened building needed to be notified.
Missouri Students Association Senate Speaker Kevin Carr said he sees a problem with how MU Alerts are presented to students.
“It’s almost as if it’s a news update, unfortunately,” he said. “The whole purpose of an alert system is to alert when something bad is happening so people can change their behavior and take the necessary precautions to be safe.”
Carr said he believes administration needs to create a rapport with students so that they can understand the purpose of an alert.
“Once that rapport is built, students can actively take those warnings and treat them with the urgency and caution they deserve,” he said. “I think in the past week the alert system has not been used in a way that’s productive and useful for students.”
The executive branch of MSA is currently investigating MU Alert to potentially discuss it with administration, Carr said. MSA President Payton Head was unavailable for comment regarding MSA’s role in investigating MU Alert’s recent failures.
MU Alert sends messages regarding campus emergencies “that could affect the health and safety of students and employees” to students via their university email addresses, according to the MU Alert website. Students can opt in through MyZou to receive the same messages on their cellphone via text or voicemail, or on a private email address.
The MU Police Department and marketing and communications staff make rapid decisions on how to communicate information in emergency situations, MU spokesman Christian Basi said. He said the system has evolved over time as technology has changed.
“The goal of the system is to make sure we are communicating information to affected populations in an effort to keep the campus safe,” Basi said.
MUPD declined to comment for this report.
Two inconsistent procedures
Around 11:30 p.m. April 15, MU sent a text alert informing students that the Columbia Police Department had asked MUPD for assistance in a search for an armed robbery suspect. The suspect had already been shot and killed in Hitt Street Parking Garage.
The university drew criticism for not using the MU Alert system until after the situation had been resolved.
After the shooting, Basi said the situation was “too dynamic,” which prevented officials from informing students about a specific location.
Later that week, shortly after 3 a.m. April 19, MU sent out mass notifications to students alerting them of another armed robbery near campus, later tweeting the same information. MU Alert also tweeted out two suspect descriptions even though CPD said there was only one.
All students received messages on their university email addresses, and students who had provided phone numbers on MyZou received calls, voicemails and text messages.
Basi said the calling feature has been available for “quite some time.”
“We use that very judiciously to inform the campus of an immediate concern that we might have and to make sure that they are able to take actions and keep them safe,” he said.
An ambiguous protocol
Only two days later, two separate incidents on the same night continued to show the inconsistent use of MU Alert.
MU Alert tweeted at 7:26 p.m. that there was a bomb threat in the MU Student Center. The Student Center and Memorial Student Union were both evacuated while authorities searched both buildings.
No mass alerts were sent to students, but MU Alert continued to provide updates on Twitter until the Student Center was reopened two hours later.
Basi said a mass alert was not sent because it would not have targeted the people in the affected buildings. Instead, emergency beacons in the two buildings were used, desktop notifications were put on building computers and staff evacuated the building.
“We don’t want to send out those text messages unnecessarily, especially when … the vast majority of people they would have reached ... are in a safe environment and were not affected by that event,” Basi said. “We know we got a lot of criticism about it, but it was the best way to communicate with the occupants of the building — through the beacon system and having staff go through the building.”
At 10:12 p.m., MU Alert sent notifications to students and tweeted that police were investigating a claim that shots had been fired near campus.
Basi said the notification was sent by MUPD as a situation that required immediate notification.
At 10:35 p.m., the Columbia Police Department tweeted that there was no indication shots had been fired.
CPD Public Information Officer Latisha Stroer said the Columbia police notifies MUPD of emergency situations when they are close to campus or could potentially affect campus.
She said the Columbia police sometimes ask MU and MUPD to put out an alert so that information on certain crimes will be more visible to students.
“Really, the ultimate decision on whether to put an alert out is the university’s,” she said. “We can give them all the information, but they’re the ones who make the decision on when to put the alert out.”
Stroer said CPD hopes to work with MUPD on the wording of alerts, specifically the difference between “shots fired” and a shooting, a misrepresentation that caused confusion April 21.
“We just want accurate information when something is going to go out,” she said. “We don’t mind the alerts at all, as long as it represents what’s actually happening.”
Basi said he and MUPD are not aware of any connection between the recent events.
“Throughout the last several days, not one faculty, staff or student member has been injured,” he said. “Everyone has been safe. We feel that that is through the hard work of the police department and the officers of the police department. We also feel that the notification system has played a role in that.”