NU’s alert system draws positive reviews from administrators

Christine Farolan, Spectrum Editor

Students who woke up Tuesday to an email alert from the University about a break-in at an off-campus apartment were seeing the efforts of Northwestern’s alert system, a multi-platform warning system University officials call upon in case of emergency.

This system has been sending the mass emails students have grown accustomed to, in addition to text messages and phone calls if administrators decide they would be more helpful, said Gloria Graham, deputy chief of University Police. It also includes sirens and loudspeakers set up across the Evanston campus and Ryan Field.

Graham said the school tends to be overly cautious with its alerts, choosing to send them out for off-campus occurrences like Tuesday’s break-in as well as on-campus incidents.

“Technically we aren’t mandated to report and send out an alert on that instance that happened off campus,” she said. “Northwestern has taken a much more proactive and liberal stance on when to issue crime alerts.”

Graham said components such as the phone calls or the sirens and loudspeakers are used when there is a more imminent need.

“Maybe we have a hazardous material issue where … it’s airborne and we would need people to clear of an area,” she said. “Or if there was police activity and we needed everybody to stay out of a particular area.”

NU has maintained this technology for at least 10 years, making updates when they are available, University spokesman Al Cubbage said. In addition, NU has been posting emergency alerts on its website homepage for about 20 years.

University Relations and UP collaborate in deciding how to respond to emergencies, with University Relations generally sending out the final message to students, faculty and staff. The database draws all registered students and the emergency phone numbers they provide on CAESAR.

“You can’t register for classes without providing that, so we require students to provide that information,” Cubbage said.

Faculty and staff have a similar directory, he added.

The system is tested monthly in UP’s communication and dispatch center to ensure all employees are up to date on how it works, Graham said. The University also tests the sirens to make sure they’re active before every home football game. These sirens operate independently of those of the city, Evanston Police Department spokesperson Perry Polinski said in an email to The Daily.

The city’s role typically consists of coordinating Evanston’s and NU’s equipment in the event of severe weather emergencies, Polinski said. However, EPD may become involved when necessary.

“This depends on the nature of the situation, the Evanston Police Department and University Police maintain a collaborative relationship to maximize both agencies’ resources,” Polinski said in the email.

Graham cited the shooting at Florida State University’s library in November 2014 as an example of a fast-acting emergency alert system.

“Twitter turned out to be one of the most common places where students were getting information and the police department was constantly updating what was going on at the library,” she said.

NU’s system also has the capability to post to the University’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to alert people. Similar alert systems are very common across campuses, Graham said.

In light of recent campus threats, other universities are updating their systems. For example, the University of Oregon recently expanded its system to allow students to enter outside emails and phone numbers into its database, alerting partners or parents in emergencies. At the University of Michigan, a phone application is being implemented after tests showing that its notifications arrived to students faster than texts.

NU system’s technology was last updated in 2009, when the capability for mass text, email and phone notifications was added. An additional siren unit was installed to improve audibility on the west side of Ryan Field about four years ago, Graham said.

Cubbage said school administrators are satisfied with the current system’s performance, with no changes to the system currently planned.

“The emergency messaging system has worked well for the University,” he said.

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