Thursday, December 8, 2011

Virginia Tech shooting alert system "awesome"

In yesterday's tragic shooting at the Virginia Tech campus where two people were shot dead, the alerts to students were rapid. Four alerts were given in the first hour of the incident following a campus policeman being shot. They started as follows: "From VT alerts (12:37pm): Gun shots reports - Coliseum parking lot. Stay inside. Secure doors. Emergency personnel responding. Call 911 for help." Then several minutes later: "Suspect described as white male, gray sweat pants, gray hat w/neon green brim, maroon hoodie and backpack."

Virginia Tech has an alert emergency notification system for students, staff and faculty that uses a number of delivery methods to reach students via phone alerts, desktop alerts, electronic message boards, broadcast emails, PA systems and the Virginia Tech home page.

Early responses from students and staff say the system worked well. Some students told television media the alert system was "awesome". This immediate and proactive aspect of the emergency response to the university shooting was taking place as Virginia Tech officials in Washington appealed a $55,000 fine levied by the US Department of Education after the previous 2007 massacre which killed 33 people. The fine was imposed for waiting too long to notify students after the attack.

US State actions after the 2007 event included the following recommendations: to integrate campus emergency planning into State Emergency Plans, communicate emergency management plans to all educational institutions, students, parents and workers and develop clear communication plans and tools to communicate rapidly.

The US Federal enquiry key findings that came out of the 2007 event were that:

* Education officials, healthcare and law enforcement personnel are not fully informed about sharing critical information on dangerous persons.
* Parents, students and teachers must learn to recognise warning signs and encourage those who need help to seek it.
* It is essential to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
* Need to fully implement emergency preparedness through practice and communication.

In this week's Virginia Tech shooting, a huge number of social media sites carried student views and videos of the shooting scene - many of the images have been picked up and used by mainstream media.

Pre-planning communication with key stakeholders in a crisis is at the centre of strong crisis management. Effective, up-to-date communication systems typically enhance response effectiveness during a critical incident, and early reports indicate that the Virginia Tech emergency notification system was a valuable asset for campus stakeholders.

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