What if …

Jen Wieczner

When a shooter killed 32 students before ending his own life at Virginia Tech last April, people wondered how it could have happened. Students here wondered whether it could happen at Northwestern.

To be proactive, Northwestern will test a new emergency notification system on Friday that will automatically call, email and text message everyone who has provided contact information. The system is intended to alert the community in the case of an ongoing emergency, and provide directions as necessary.

This notification system is one way of planning for the worst. After reports faulted Virgnia Tech’s mass email alarm as ineffectual, NU officials said they were dissatisfied with the university’s own bulk email system. While text messages will be limited in characters, the new system is designed to reach students in multiple forms. Assistant Chief of University Police Dan McAleer says instructions could vary depending on the crisis. The university is also working on a loud speaker system, such as a siren, a tone warning, or a recorded announcement.

Success of such a system, however, depends on the ability of decision makers to send the right message. “At Virginia Tech, using that rapid notification system would not have made a difference,” says Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit organization specializing in school safety planning. “You could have that notification system and it takes you 30 minutes to remember you have it and make the decision to use it.” Dorn says the system is “useless” without previously made plans dictating efficient responses depending on the specific threat. Such plans, called “functional protocols,” include lockdowns and “reverse evacuations” in which people could go the nearest building to receive directions by a staff member. It is also important, Dorn says, to have an established media protocol, in which unauthorized staff do not talk to camera crews and risk providing false locations of a shooter or giving away victims’ hiding places on TV.

While Virginia Tech’s student body exceeds NU’s by more than 10,000 people and its campus is 2,600 acres compared to our 240, it does not mean it’s easier to execute a lockdown here. “You don’t lock down a whole university,” Dorn says. “What you need to be able to do is compartmentalize the operation. Each independent building needs that capability.” And the easy fixes are no less important: Dorn says training people to spot weapons (the behavior of someone carrying one is very distinct, he says) is as cheap as a $30 video. “For the price of a good metal detector you can train the entire university police force on visual weapons screening.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the police to take care of the problem. McAleer says university forces have mutual aid agreements with other local jurisdictions who could send additional backup. Evanston police commander James Elliot says in the case of an ongoing life-threatening situation such as an active shooter, officers could use rapid deployment tactics to “save as many lives as possible,” at least until SWAT teams reinforced them. They start by securing the perimeter of a dangerous area so no one else can be threatened, Elliot says. “Then we send teams or officers into the building in an attempt to reduce the threat. If it’s not a building it has to be an area that is somewhat confined-It couldn’t be a sporting event or even a park.”

Dorn says students should remember that there are many other dangers besides gunmen. After all, he says, “that’s not what’s killing most college students.”