Texas Tech officials learned a lot about their emergency alert system following the shooting of a university police officer in October and a bomb threat the next month. Tech emergency management coordinator and university’s general counsel Ronald Phillips says reviews after each incident provided insights that will help make the system better.
“These incidents have taught us things about how we respond, how we handle things, how we communicate, and hopefully we have learned from each incident and we get more effective and more efficient,” he says.
When bad weather -- an ice or heavy snow storm or a possible tornado – hits Lubbock, someone in the university president’s office handles the emergency alert. Those are known and expected events.
But when an unexpected event happens, the Texas Tech police department usually initiates the messaging effort.
“The way we’ve designed our system is for the police to immediately get a message out about the event,” he says. “But pretty soon what’s going to happen is that police dispatch is going to be consumed with 911 calls…so we want to transition as quickly as we can from police to our communications folks.”
Phillips says there was a delay of about 20 minutes in getting out the alert after Tech police officer Floyd East Jr. was fatally shot allegedly by a freshman the evening of Oct. 9. Usually, an emergency alert from the police department goes out within a couple of minutes.
“The one was unique in that the individuals that were supposed to get the message out were hiding under desks,” he explains.
The alert went out once the police department had been cleared, Phillips said, calling the delay, “understandable.”
The alert system was implemented in 2007 and has been enhanced through the years. Currently, a mass messaging contract covers the university, the health sciences center and Angelo State University.
Phillips says others on campus have been added.
Templates for various scenarios are preloaded into the messaging system. When an alert needs to be issued, either police officials or someone in the president’s communications operation picks the template and may edit it to specify location and add other information.
The messages go out to about 45,000 people via text, email and voice, or all three. It depends on what students, faculty and staff designate on the emergency alert notification page. The messages also go out the university’s social media accounts, are posted on the university’s websites and displayed on monitors across campus.
“That’s an effective process to communicate with 45,000 people in two minutes,” Phillips says, “That’s pretty good.”
Phillips says there was a small snafu when the alert went out about a bomb threat reported Nov. 20. The voice icon in the alert system hadn’t been clicked. If it had, the phone call would have stated the area of concern was around Talkington Hall.
That’s what the text and email alerts said because those icons had been clicked once the template was revised to pinpoint the area on campus. Instead, the voice alert told recipients to evacuate.
Officials did reviews of the system after the October shooting and after the bomb threat. “We welcome that because you’re dealing with peoples’ lives and if you can find a way to get better, than let’s get better,” he says.