We had a bomb threat the other evening on campus. It turned out to be a hoax, and the situation was handled very well by our campus police who cordoned off the area, evacuated buildings and put the safety of our students first.
The post-event discussion has centered around the process we used to notify students of the threat. Twitter was alive the evening of the event with DTH reporters and other students quickly exchanging 140 characters of information. Facebook posts and messages also spread information much faster than the University did and likely much faster than we could. We certainly can’t expect to control every communication channel in an emergency, and our first obligation is to secure the situation and then make informed notifications to our students and staff. However, we were totally absent from some of the channels and the information vacuum was filled in by other sources, some less reliable than others (Facebook rumors of a gunman on campus, for example.).
What I find interesting in the discussions has been the expectation from students that we alert them immediately. I think this outlines an unexpected issue with the widespread adoption of campus alert systems that occurred after the Virginia Tech murders.
Students, well adjusted to the immediacies of IM, the Facebook news feed, and text messages bring those expectations to an institution that doesn’t operate in that way. For a variety of very good reasons, immediate may not be possible except in those cases of obvious threats to the entire campus (tornadoes, chemical spills, etc.). Sometimes the incident is localized and does not warrant notifying the entire campus. Students, however, don’t seem to see it that way. They want to be informed and they will seek out information sources from wherever they can be found.
Judging by some of the posts, many of which were retweets, we seem to have done a good job of getting people to look at our main University emergency communication system and we can derive a lot of value from that system by having people repurpose that content for us into Twitter streams, Facebook links, etc. This saves us from having to manage 50 different communication channels. If we can provide good source information, the Tweets and posts will use that information, allowing us to drive the messaging we need to send during campus emergencies.
What we (and I suspect many other campuses) have not been able to do is figure out how to manage and then meet the communication expectations of students. We begged, cajoled and on some campuses required them to sign up for text message alerts and I think we didn’t understand the expectations and experiences students brought into that process. For our students, text messages mean immediate, because that has been their experience with that form of communication. We adopted a communication mechanism that had contexts for its users that we didn’t see.
We need to spend some more time thinking about which notifications go into which channels and how we manage that process in a crisis situation. That’s not a simple thing to figure out and it will take some time, but I’m sure we can.