At 8:20 a.m. on Friday, March 16, it was business as usual. I was struggling to stay awake amidst a regular, everyday physics lecture. At that moment, phones hidden away in backpacks sprang to life, announcing RIT was under lockdown. In a flash, most of the class’ attention was diverted from the lecture to smartphones and laptops; they were checking communication and news networks to try and piece together as much information about what was going on as they could. They soon discovered more notifications from the alert system waiting for them in their RIT email accounts to supplement the text messages and calls they had already received. Through phone and internet, this process of information distribution continued for roughly an hour, until a final mass notification was sent announcing the emergency’s resolution. Fortunately, the “gunman” spoken of in the updates turned out to be nothing more than an innocent student with an unusually-shaped umbrella.
The story is common knowledge by now. Numerous media outlets reported on the progression of events, how it was handled and who was involved with the investigation. But what forces were at work behind the scenes, keeping students updated on the situation and managing the emergency response procedures?
A WELL OILED MACHINE
Lynn Daley, Director of Business Continuity, shed some light on the inner workings of RIT Alert, the Institute’s Emergency Mass Notification system; she was part of the duo that designed the current system. Prior to their version of RIT Alert, the Institute only had plans to deal with emergency situations directly, without a means to communication with the student body. Collectively called the National Incident Management System (NIMS), these plans were adopted by most university, state and governmental organizations following the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001.
This standardized system forms the foundation from which the Institute deals with problems. It exists in two varieties, and which one is used depends on whether the campus is experiencing an emergency. During non-emergency situations, it forms a chain of command tasked with managing the university’s day-to-day security measures. During emergencies, this chain is modified into a Critical Incident Management Team (CMIT) to accommodate the situation. Some people remain in a similar position to their non-emergency states, the duties of others are altered and some are moved to completely new positions.
From the beginning, the NIMS eliminated any guesswork involved in critical situations. “There’s no question of who does what,” explained Daley. “That’s what always takes forever [in emergencies].” By having a pre-established set of trained people, the most appropriate ones for the job can be put on the case. All in all, about 120 campus personnel are trained to step up as members of the team if they are determined to be the best choice to take command.
The RIT Alert system, however, is a relatively recent addition to the response plans. There had been talk of eventually implementing a high-tech information distribution system to supplement NIMS, but no real initiative to do it until the Virginia Tech shootings on April 16, 2007, made apparent the value of keeping students in the loop during dangerous situations. Daley arranged the system in such a way that messages can be sent to a few specific people or everybody, depending on who needs what information, and how those messages are delivered. It can deliver custom warnings, like that of the “gunman,” or a wide range of presets designed for everything from fires to floods.
In the event of a potential threat, the process begins when any party receives an emergency call in regards to an event on RIT’s campus. All such messages are immediately forwarded to Public Safety, including 911 calls. As first responders, it falls to Public Safety to determine whether or not a campus emergency should be declared. If it is, they must take steps towards isolating the hazardous area and neutralizing the threat. The alert system may be activated, and local law enforcement may be called to assist. Meanwhile, it falls to the CMIT to ensure that information is distributed calmly and effectively through RIT Alert. They must also ensure that any media representatives who come to investigate are kept at a safe distance so they don’t interfere and are not put in danger. They will monitor social media networks constantly to ensure that all information being spread online is accurate. This process is maintained until, like in the case of the umbrella, the trouble has passed.
A SYSTEM UNDER TRIAL
Communication is the key to the system’s success. During the emergency, however, it proved the biggest challenge. Communication errors, confusing messages and unclear emergency plans resulted in a certain degree of confusion amongst students and faculty. Some professors’ reactions to the alert demonstrated this ambiguity. While the majority detained students in classrooms until the alert was called off, some simply told students to leave once class was over. This decision was heavily criticized in the aftermath of the incident as, in the event of a real threat, it could have endangered students’ lives.
Not long after the Institute declared an emergency situation, it became apparent to Daley and her co-workers that the messages and instructions they were broadcasting may not have been clear enough. The original message, for example, warned of the potential gunman’s presence in Kate Gleason Hall (KGH, 35), a residence hall. James E. Gleason Hall (GLE, 09), an academic building housing the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, shares a similar name, and both buildings are commonly known to students simply as “Gleason Hall.” Daley was the one sending out the messages at the time, and had to send out a clarification message later on after she realized the confusion.
Most serious, however, was the number of students, staff and faculty around campus didn’t receive any kind of alert messages during the incident. Only 63 percent of students are signed up for the alert system, but others who should have been on the alert list mysteriously heard nothing as well. Daley has been working since then to revise the contacts on the list to guarantee that everyone involved in a potential emergency has the information they need to stay safe. She also intends to add other workers on campus, such as the chaplains from the Center for Religious Life, who are not listed as faculty despite being present around campus during most of the day.
The team managing the alert system views the umbrella incident as a valuable means to expose its flaws and weaknesses. “This was a blessing for us,” remarked Daley “It allowed us to run through our paces without anyone getting hurt.” It was only the second large-scale use of the alert system in a fast-paced, emergency situation.
Now aware of just how little emergency protocol students and faculty are familiar with, Daley is also working to develop building- and room- specific plans. She describes it as a, “Here’s what you do, if…” plan. It would be customized so that, for example, a student in a chemistry lab in Gosnell Hall knows exactly where they need to go and what they need to do. Daley wants to make this vital safety information actively available by instructing faculty beforehand on the actions they are to take. She notes that the problem with how some professors reacted was mostly due to the general instructions for emergency action are only available passively online, with no training system in place to feed the information directly to the people who might need it.
The primary goal for all of RIT’s emergency response plans is the safety of those who live, work and learn in the Brick City. In one of its first major test runs, it proved somewhat effective, but also exposed some very real communication problems that could have turned catastrophic had the umbrella man really been a gunman. Daley and her crew intend to continuously pursue improvements to the system to prepare for anything. After all, an emergency is something that strikes without warning — the best chance to avoid a tragedy is to ensure that most possible setbacks are identified and accounted for. With a little luck and a lot of work, RIT Alert and the forces behind it may be more prepared for the next challenge that happens to blow their way.