Emergency alert system for SFSU being finalized
April 17, 2008 1:12 PM
When gunmen opened fire on campuses in Virginia and Illinois, chances are they had little foresight into the far-reaching ramifications of their actions.
Now, a year after the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois universities—two of the worst mass shootings in United States history—a new emergency notification system is being tested at SF State that may prevent a similar tragedy.
The system, dubbed ConnectED, is similar to the AlertSF Notification system and the newly Federal Communications Commission-approved Commercial Mobile Alert System. It is intended to reach students en masse via text messaging, e-mail or voicemail.
Once the system is implemented, students would be notified of the status of the school and other crucial information in the event of an emergency that temporarily debilitates the SF State campus.
The ConnectED system was most recently tested during the university police department’s “active-shooter” drill, which took place in the Student Services Building on Wed., April 9.
Test messages went out to the emergency operations center (EOC) team, SF State President Corrigan and his cabinet, and the staff in the Student Services building, where the drill was held.
University Police Chief Kirk Gaston and Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Gayle Orr-Smith were together to observe the drill in SSB at the time.
“Neither of our cell phones rang,” said Orr-Smith, although she added that e-mail and voice messages were waiting for them when they returned to their offices.
The Virginia Tech shootings created a new marketing opportunity for notification systems at college campuses around the country, Orr-Smith said. SF State acquired the connectED notification system in July 2007, and hopes to implement the notification once testing is completed.
A Unique Threat
As an urban campus with a student population that largely commutes to classes, SF State encounters a unique problem when seeking to inform students about potential threats, said SF State President Robert A. Corrigan.
“Colleges and universities responded with a great sense of horror to the shootings at Virginia Tech…this came as a real wake up call,” he said.
“One of the problems was that Virginia Tech was late in getting word of the shootings out to students,” he added. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we quickly and efficiently alert students here?’”
Corrigan said that “many colleges in urban areas are faced with the same problem...and the [connectED] system has been put in place [at SF State] to keep students out of harm’s way.”
Although ensuring the safety of SF State students, faculty and staff is paramount, he said, students’ freedoms must be taken into consideration when applying campus-wide safety measures.
“The last thing we want to see is metal detectors around campus,” Corrigan said. “There is a fine line between improving security on campus and infringing on student freedoms.”
To do that, communication lines between student counseling services and the police department remain open and are key in tragedy prevention, he said.
“We do try to keep track of students who have displayed [psychological] problems in the past and who may pose a threat to the student population,” he said.
In the case of Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, both gunmen had known psychological problems.
“Counseling and Psychological Services share their observations,” said Gaston, who has been Chief of Police at SF State for just over a year. According to Gaston, the incident at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University increased awareness and encouraged “erring on the side of caution” for both services.
Students across campus used the occasion of emergency preparedness week and the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings to express their feelings about the state of security at SF State.
“Yeah, I feel safe on campus,” said Kristina Ledoux, a marketing major who lives in the dorms. “The police department is so close, I feel comfortable, knowing that they would provide me with help in the case of emergency.”
Other students offered a differing opinion.
“I’ve seen a number of crimes committed at night here,” said Ashley Singh, a biology major who also lives in the dorms. “I never see police around at night, so I really don’t feel safe here on campus.”
“I would like to know about possible safety issues the students face here on campus,” she added. “I feel there is little interaction between campus security [officials] and students, and I would feel much more safer if they communicated with us once in a while.”
Emergency Preparedness week and the connectED system is an attempt to do just that, according to Orr-Smith.
“We want to let students know about the services that are available to them in a time of emergency,” she said in a recent interview.
In addition to the emergency notification system, the numerous emergency phones that are scattered throughout campus that connect users directly to a police operator could provide students with much need assistance during an emergency situation.
Knowledge of one’s surroundings, Orr-Smith said, is key in preventing a tragedy similar to those at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University.
In the end, safety in the time of an emergency will fall in the hands of students, she said.
“Often, the first line of defense is student awareness…we want to empower individuals to be aware of their surroundings.”
“I try to stay aware, especially at night,” said Natalia Chavez, a dorm resident and environmental studies major who gets off work late and often times finds herself walking through campus late at night.
“Aside from walking home at night, I feel safe here on campus,” she added. “I’m not quite sure what I would do in an emergency situation that involved a person with a gun.”
According to Gaston, patrols are increased at night if a specific threat is identified and police department staffing is based around recent crime trends.
Aside from the new emergency notification system, the university has recently increased efforts to promote campus safety in the event of a disaster or an emergency, according to Orr-Smith.
Included is assigning an emergency coordinator to each building on campus. The emergency coordinator is a faculty member who would be in charge of organizing evacuation efforts in a drill or cases of emergency.
Building emergency coordinators are responsible for maintaining their building’s emergency plan and dispersing information to people who work in the building, Orr-Smith said.
They have a liaison role and are responsible for alerting the University Police Department with concerns and problems, and are encouraged to recruit volunteers within the building.
“We take emergency and disaster preparation very seriously, and we’ve been very proactive in our approach,” Orr-Smith said.
The UPD advises students on campus who call 911 in an emergency from their cell phones to inform the operator of their exact location, as this would quicken the response time of campus police.
SF State’s non-emergency police dispatch is staffed 24 hours at (415) 338-7200.
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