MUPD’s messaging system, MU Alert, aims to keep students updated and aware

MUPD Chief Doug Schwandt said that sending out each MU Alert emergency message is an individual decision.

The words “MU Alert reports…” light up the phone screen. There’s been an emergency near campus.

The university’s alert messaging system, MU Alert, has been active since 2009. Alerts are sent out through text messages and email, as well as posted on the MU Alert Twitter account and website.

The decision to send out alerts are determined on a case-by-case basis, MU Police Department Chief Doug Schwandt said. The on-duty police supervisor determines if the situation requires an emergency alert to be sent out.

If that’s the case, the supervisor directs the communications operator working with the department’s dispatch to compose an emergency message. Each message must be less than 140 characters in order to fit the current Twitter character limit.

Schwandt said the presence of either imminent or ongoing danger to the MU campus is the major determinant for the decision to send out a message.

These decisions are individual to each situation, Schwandt said. Each emergency is different from the last, and therefore requires a different approach on deciding if an alert is necessary.

“[The system] is not automated,” Schwandt said. “We decide whether we truly believe there’s ongoing or imminent danger to our campus.”

Schwandt said that while he does recognize that awareness is crucial to staying safe on campus, MUPD doesn’t want to overload and in turn desensitize the community with too many alert messages.

For example, Schwandt said that a lot of people call claiming to have heard shots fired. The reality is that not all of them are actual guns going off. Sometimes people mistake the sound of a car backfiring or nearby fireworks for a gunshot.

Therefore, there’s no need to unnecessarily alarm people with an alert for every time someone reports shots fired.

However, after MUPD investigates and confirms that there is a real threat involving a gun, sending an emergency message might be the next move.

“We want to try to validate information before we make a determination and send out a mass alert to everybody,” Schwandt said.

On the MU Alert website, it asks that people not call MUPD after receiving an alert message.

“[MUPD is] working hard to confirm facts and maintain the safety of the campus,” according to the website.

Schwandt said this is because it’s easy to overload the MUPD’s phone system. With only two dispatch responders on duty and over 30,000 enrolled students, the system can get overwhelmed.

When an alert is sent out, a lot of parents and relatives of MU students call in to ask if their student is safe, Schwandt said. Because of this, the website asks students to call their families and communicate with them. The only times people should be calling the department is if they have an emergency or new information regarding an emergency, he said.

On Sept. 29, the MU Alert system sent out an alert claiming that shots had been fired at Copper Beech Townhomes in Columbia. Two people were shot and later treated at a local hospital, according to the message MU Alert sent out. Neither were MU students.

Over 52,000 people received that alert message through either text or email, Schwandt said.

The Copper Beech Townhomes are not a part of the MU campus. Schwandt, however, made the decision to send out the emergency message because he knew that a lot of MU students lived there.

“I just thought it was the best thing to do to alert our campus community and it was the only way to get it out even though it wasn’t necessarily affecting the [MU] campus,” Schwandt said.

Senior Justin McDonald is signed up to receive the alerts through both text and email.

“I feel that [MUPD] does a good job of informing students about threatening issues promptly,” he said.

He said the alerts are useful and the fastest and most effective way to inform students about immediate safety concerns on campus.

Considering how often he checks his phone and email, he said he finds the alert system to be efficient.

After McDonald sees an MU Alert, he said he tends to take some sort of precautionary action afterward.

For example, on June 23 there was an alert message sent out about a potential bomb threat in the Student Recreation Center. McDonald said he had been planning to come to campus to study late at night but ended up staying at home until he was informed that the threat had been cleared.

Schwandt has seen a lot of criticism toward the MU Alert system, as happens with many MUPD initiatives.

“No matter what emergency alert you put out, someone criticizes it in some way,” he said. “It wasn’t soon enough, there wasn’t enough information, you shouldn’t have put it out. There’s always some element of criticism.”

Schwandt said he wants students to remember that the emergency message is not a news story. It won’t always have the most in-depth and extensive information, but instead “just enough” to keep students safe.

“The messages are going to be usually short and concise about information as it relates to that emergency,” he said.

McDonald also said he hopes MUPD continues to interact with MU students to ensure that there’s a student voice taken into consideration when evaluating programs such as the MU Alert system.

“I have seen great improvements between the relationship of students and MUPD and I hope that we continue to take positive strides in the right direction,” he said.

Edited by Olivia Garrett | ogarrett@themaneater.com

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