Mass Notification of off-campus events

Early in 2016, Uber driver, Jason Dalton, went on a shooting spree which included areas within a couple of miles of Western Michigan University campus. However, as Western Michigan University’s notification system was not activated for this event, many members felt that they should have been informed. One senior began a petition pushing for changes in the notification criteria. From their standpoint, the issue is simple. Higher education institutions need to inform members of local potential dangers, regardless of source or jurisdiction.

With the advent of campus mass shootings, the 2008 Clery Act requires higher education campuses to have a mass notification system to warn staff, faculty and students of danger. While the original intention was to address school shootings, warnings about near campus events may also need to be broadcast. As a rampage event can easily cross campus boundaries and as constituents are coming on and off the property, emergency personnel need to consider if, when and how to communicate these dangers.

However, implementation does have its challenges. There is an inherent challenge between confirming the threat and delivering the message as fast as possible. Consider the cases of umbrellas being mistaken for rifles; the resulting false alarms then impact credibility and the notices not being taken seriously. Timeliness, especially considering that these shootings are usually over in minutes, and verification become compounded when communication is required with additional authorities. If the incident was entirely on campus, campus safety can quickly confirm the validity of the danger and initiate communication. Off campus incidents would need to be confirmed with the local law enforcement agency that has the jurisdiction, adding to the delivery time and the chance for misleading information. This issue is not relevant only to higher education; similar challenges are faced by office complexes and adjoining businesses.

So should emergency personnel initiate the mass notification system for near campus events? Faculty, staff, students and their parents certainly think so. A possible solution is to ensure quick and accurate messaging through drills and active partnerships between campuses, large employers and local law enforcement in a form of a coordinated community response.