Will Your Crisis Plan Work at 1 AM?
The recent deadly on-campus shooting at the University of Alberta put their crisis plan to the test in unexpected ways.
Postmedia News obtained emails and briefing notes from the University through a Freedom of Information request that reveals officials had difficulty contacting members of the crisis management and campus security teams in a timely manner and had inadvertently allowed an emergency email account to lapse.
The shooting incident occurred at approximately 12:08 a.m. in a shopping and residential area of the campus. The campus patrol supervisor reached the director of the university’s protective services team by phone at 12:40 a.m. to report an unconfirmed shooting. By 1 a.m., several superintendents on the protective services team were notified of the confirmed incident, but the team opted not to activate the emergency notification system due to the fact that it was no longer considered to be an immediate threat.
The protective services team raised concerns that an emergency notification could potentially attract more people to the scene and overwhelm the campus security staff. The team then decided to call the university’s provost and activate the university’s crisis management team. The provost was reached at about 1:15 a.m., but other members of the crisis team were difficult to reach and were not notified until several hours later.
The university sent out a Twitter message at 2:10 a.m. asking students to “avoid the area” where the incident took place but reassuring that “people are unharmed.” Another Twitter message followed confirming that it was a robbery attempt and police were on the scene but “Exams & other business proceeding as scheduled.”
A similar message was posted on the university’s home page, which was updated throughout the day. Even with these messages students were confused and concerned.
One student wrote to university officials later that morning. “Facebook and Twitter are the only sources for information from the university,” the student wrote. “I signed up for the emergency response system which would clearly apply given the events of last night.”
At 6:21 a.m., university administrators attempted to send a mass email notification to 70,000 students, faculty and staff with details about what had happened and counseling services being offered, but the message failed to deliver. Due to oversight, the designated emergency email account had not been migrated over to the new university system more than a year ago. The email notification was finally sent at 9:36 a.m.
As a result of the issues faced during this crisis the university has made multiple recommendations for improving communication before and during an emergency incident, including having proper contact information for university security officials, enhancing information sharing between local police and campus security during critical incidents, and using social media to spread accurate information.
Even though the university regularly tests its emergency response procedures, holding an annual “full-simulation exercise,” the mass notification “glitch” was not discovered until a real life incident put it to the test.
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