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Alert Carolina balances threat with proximity to avoid unnecessary alarm

In the 24-hour period following the off-campus shooting of Deah Barakat and Yusor and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in February 2015, four Alert Carolina emails were sent to notify community members of the triple homicide. No text messages were sent.

Several other off-campus incidents, including an armed robbery at the intersection of Henderson and North streets on April 20, 2016 and an indecent exposure incident near Granville Towers on Feb. 28, 2016, were the subjects of emails and not texts from the emergency notification system.

University spokesperson Randy Young, who works with the Department of Public Safety, said a number of factors go into the decision of whether to send students and community members an email, text or both.

“We reserve text messaging or alert messaging to situations where there is an imminent ongoing threat to the campus specifically,” Young said. “In that situation (the triple homicide), due to details known by us, there was no belief that there was any threat to the University community.”

In 2016, 39 texts were sent through the Alert Carolina system — representing 72 percent of all alerts, including those sent through email and website updates. Texts were sent for 45 percent of alerts in 2015, and for 53 percent of alerts in 2014.

Young said the Alert Carolina system has to remain compliant with the Clery Act, which requires timely warnings to be sent by university officials to the campus when a situation poses danger to the community.

“For example, for a sexual assault, we would have to put out a timely warning for Clery legislation, but we may have already made an arrest, so a text would not be sent,” Young said.

Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit campus safety center, said in a true emergency, it’s important to communicate information across multiple platforms.

“In anything that’s imminent and potentially life threatening — like a tornado warning that means a tornado has been spotted — I advise my clients to email, text and use some other form of communication,” Dorn said.

He said it’s also important to not overuse an emergency alerts system.

“We get a lot of people who begin to ignore the system if it’s overused,” Dorn said. “If students do get the alert, they don’t look at it. They figure, ‘This is the same alert I’ve seen…’”

Senior Pranavi Sanka said she pays attention if she gets an Alert Carolina message.

“I do pay attention when I get a text message,” Sanka said. “I probably get them like once or twice a month. (Wednesday), I got three because of the alarms, but that’s rare to get so many within the same day.”

Senior Joey Avioli said the emails and texts sent with Wednesday's siren test were irritating to him.

“I got like four (Wednesday) morning,” Avioli said. “They could chill on the sirens, honestly.”

Dorn said alerting campuses when drills are going on is more important than many people realize.

“We had a case in Nigeria where they decided to do an unannounced drill of an active shooter on campus, and so here they thought, ‘We have these new announcement systems,’ and they didn’t tell anyone they were doing it,” Dorn said. “People jumped out of windows, and one man died.”

He said similar things have happened elsewhere when system tests weren’t well publicized.

During the summer of 2016, UNC streamlined its system from separate message and siren activations to the One Button alert system. 

"It took up to 15 minutes to activate all of these methods of communication," Young said. "We've reduced that down to a three-minute activation. We've expedited the process of this multi-level communication."

He said Alert Carolina has evolved over the past several yeas. 

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"The way we sent out messages five years ago may seem outdated now," Young said.

He said he's proud of DPS's integration of social media into the alerts system.

"When we send out a message, it automatically posts to the website, app, Facebook and Twitter," Young said. "Those are paramount now because people choose to receive their information through social media now. That's why we need to keep studying and to keep testing our system and to find new ways to communicate in more efficient ways."

Kyle Cavanaugh, the vice president for administration at Duke University, said decisions about sending messages through the DukeALERT system are made on a case-by-case basis.

“Every situation is slightly different,” Cavanaugh said. “In the majority of our practices, we send both (text and email), because we want to have some level of redundancy in the system." 

He said it’s a challenge to decide which off-campus incidents should require alerts, and which should not. He said Duke usually doesn’t send alerts for incidents that don’t happen on campus.

“You get into definitional issues for what is off-campus,” Cavanaugh said. “Every school is required, which I know (UNC) is, to define specific areas that fall under legal governance structures. But then there are occasions where it doesn’t fit the definition, but you feel there is an imminent risk to the institution — so we have to make those judgment calls on occasion.”

From the spring semester of 2014 to fall 2016, a total of 223 alerts were sent out through the Alert Carolina system. Of those, 20 dealt with off-campus incidents, and only two off-campus alerts were sent via text. 

Cavanaugh said it’s hard to walk the line of sending alerts when they’re warranted and not bombarding the university community.

“I think you always have to give consideration to that, so that people won’t start dismissing them,” he said. “But you also have to look at how frequently these events occur. You’re really dictated by the event itself. That’s always the concern about being oversaturating.”

Young said DPS takes similar factors into consideration.

"For example, over the Christmas break, there were a number of residence hall rooms that were broken into and nothing was taken," Young said. "We decided not to send text messages to 19,000 students who were home for Christmas break. We meet Clery compliance, but don't necessarily put out a text message."

He said DPS is always looking for ways to improve Alert Carolina.

“I think by and large, it’s a system that is very effective,” Young said. “However, it is under consistent and constant review.”