University Crisis Alert Plan Examined

Two weeks after the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech, administrators and students across the nation are asking the same question: What if it happened here?

Harvard employs a multilevel emergency structure with communication systems for those involved in responding to an incident. But as at many other colleges and universities, the tragedy in Blacksburg, Va., has prompted a closer look at how the University communicates with students in crisis.

SECURITY AT HARVARD

The University’s response system consists of three sets of teams: approximately 25 for Local Emergency Management at the school level; one for Incident Support, which incorporates elements of response such as media coordination and resource allocation at the University level; and Crisis Management, which is chaired by the provost and makes final decisions on University-wide crises.

“A set of concentric circles is the way to think of this management structure, and always at the center of the circle isthe on-scene staff,” said Thomas E. Vautin, the chair of Incident Support. “We don’t ever take it away from the focal point.”

Harvard formally implemented the current three-tiered structure in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, but a tragedy six years before initially spurred Harvard to reconsider its response to emergencies, according to University spokesman Joseph Wrinn.

“I thought it was the Dunster murder-suicide that really opened a lot of eyes around here in the 90s as far as logistical, on-the-ground things,” Wrinn said, referring to the 1995 incident when an undergraduate stabbed her roommate to death and hung herself. “There was kind of a switch then that pulled [the University] to begin to organize it more.”

Administrators tasked with responding to crises emphasized the importance of communication in their emergency duties.

“The big lesson is communication, at the end of the day, that’s the biggest issue that you have to get your hands around... get[ting] the communication out to as many people as possible as often as possible,” said Paul J. Riccardi, dean for administration and operations at the School of Public Health and a member of that school’s Local Emergency Management Team.

In case of a crisis, administrators can reach members of their response teams through a cascading notification system that first tries office numbers, and then drops down to cell, home, and pager numbers to organize a team conference. If someone cannot be reached, there is a designated alternate that the system tries to contact in the same manner.

All of the Local Emergency Management Teams “have this system in place, so they can quickly initiate a process,” said Susan Walsh, executive director for information technology infrastructure and an Incident Support member. “If it’s just something at a particular school, there’s a way that they can get their emergency team together.”

But the shootings at Virginia Tech have brought renewed scrutiny of methods used by schools to communicate with their students.

Harvard can e-mail alerts to students and has a voicemail alert system that can send audio messages to a large number of campus phones, but only those with voice-mail capabilities.

Though she did not rule out expanding the existing alert system, Walsh doubted whether it would be as effective as targeting mobile phones.

“If the message is going to the common-room line, is anybody really there to pick it up?” asked Walsh. “Is that the best way to get the word out quickly?”

NEW TXT MESSAGE

According to Wrinn, the University was planning to create a text message alert system before the incident at Virginia Tech shined a spotlight on emergency communication systems.

“You were going to be seeing a reach-out for cell phone numbers anyway,” Wrinn said. “But I just imagine—human nature being what it is—that recent event has focused attention on that area more.”

After some Virginia Tech undergrads criticized their school’s notification of students during the incident, providers of text message alert systems have proliferated rapidly, and national college and university interest has followed suit.

Gavin Macomber, co-founder and executive vice president of MobileSphere, which contracts with Harvard for other communication services and is now offering a text message alert system, foresees universal adoption of text-message alert systems,

“I think there are 4,200 colleges and universities in the United States. My guess is by the end of the year if not by the start of the ’07-’08 calendar year, every single one of those schools will have some sort of text message system in place,” Macomber said.

But if Harvard purchases such a system, it will have to collect cell phone numbers, something that has plagued text message alert structures at other schools.

“Some of these systems are early at other schools, recently implemented, and... it’s self-serve and optional and they’ve had a real small number sign up,” Walsh said.

The question of whether to require cell phone numbers for registration or simply collect them on a voluntary basis remains unanswered at many schools, according to Macomber.

Some students expressed concern that a mandatory text message alert system would give too much information to the University.

“[The school] having more sort of information than you need about the student body than I feel would be necessary is not something I agree with,” Alec E. Jones ’09 said. “Especially cell phones, that’s really a private matter.”

Some providers offer the service for free to customers that accept text message ads, a possibility that did not endear such a system to some.

“I see enough advertisements around in daily life without having it sent on my cell phone,” Alexei Colin ’10 said.

Though emerging technologies require adaptation in how universities respond to emergencies, Wrinn sees a solid framework for response as the key to effective emergency management.

“Technology really evolves and what you use evolves,” Wrinn said. “But managing the managers doesn’t change.”

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at cmarks@fas.harvard.edu.