Shooting at Virginia Tech brings focus to Elon’s efficiency with emergency communication

By Stuart Jones

Virginia Tech police officer Deriek Crouse was shot and killed by Ross Ashley, 22, a student at Radford University, who then shot himself on Dec. 8 at Virginia Tech. Since the shootings that happened on April 16, 2007, where a student shot and killed 32 others before turning the gun on himself, the emergency response system has been much improved. The university found that it could do a lot to implement new communication tools, including cell phones and the Internet that they had not taken advantage of to that point. Most institutions, including Elon University, implemented new standards and practices in wake of the incident. With the most recent shootings at Virginia Tech, local people are wondering how prepared Elon University is.

“After the first Virginia Tech shooting we got a little more serious about thinking of how we would notify the campus in regards to any kind of emergency,” Dan Anderson vice president of university relations said. “We started thinking about tornadoes, train derailments where we might have hazardous chemicals, gunmen on campus and snow storms.”

“It’s difficult to get word out to approximately, on any given day, 7,000 people on campus. Some of them are outside, some of them are sleeping, some are in class so it’s difficult to get the word out to everybody,” Anderson said. “We determined the best way to get the information out is to do it in lots of different ways.”

Those systems currently in place at Elon are:

  • Outdoor siren system (all of campus in earshot)
  • E-Alert text message
  • All campus email (includes students, faculty and staff)
  • Red banner on any Elon webpage
  • Emergency message on digital signage around campus
  • Broadcasting system through the office phones
  • Broadcasting through Elon’s radio WSOE and the Elon closed circuit television network
  • Prerecorded inclement weather hotline (336-279-RAIN, 336-278-SNOW)

“I believe the systems and technologies we have in place will work fine,” said Scott Hildebrand, assistant director of teaching and learning technologies at Elon. Hildebrand is also in charge of maintaining the E-Alert system and the emergency digital signage. “If there are any problems with the current system it comes from user errors. Those who don’t update their phone number or verify their account with E-Alert will not get the notifications.”

“I’m very ill-informed and don’t know much about the systems that we have in place,” Kat Valero a junior said. “I think it’s important that students know what to do and where to go when these emergencies happen. I have heard the siren once in my two and half years here and looked around to see everyone walking around with their heads cut off, not knowing what to do even though we got an email about it.”

“The texting system is great, when it works,” Sophie Nielson-Kolding a senior who is signed up for E-Alerts said. “I feel very safe here, but the last incident with the gunman was scary. I would like to know what’s in place for something like that. A siren?”

“I think the system’s good but they don’t communicate well how to sign up for the system,” Andrew Hirsh a junior said. “I know I’m not signed up and I know a lot of people that aren’t signed up. They send the emails at the beginning of the year about it, but I think they should be more frequent because there are still plenty of people not signed up. Everyone should be required to have E-Alert.”

Photo courtesy of VT Alerts.

After speaking with Anderson and Hildebrand it became apparent that Elon shares the same line of notification systems as Virginia Tech. According to www.alerts.vt.edu Virginia Tech will also use several information delivery systems to reach their campus including:

  • The Virginia Tech homepage (www.vt.edu)
  • Broadcast e-mails to all vt.edu accounts
  • Electronic message boards in classrooms
  • The weather/emergency hotline (540-231-6668)
  • Campus sirens and loudspeakers
  • VT Phone Alerts
  • VT Desktop Alerts

Elon has matched each one of these notification systems, so the question is what makes Elon any different than Virginia Tech?

“We don’t mess around,” said John Miles, an officer with Elon’s Campus Security for seven years now. “You’ve got to be on your game and give 110 percent in our line of work.”

The university isn’t satisfied with the efficiency of the systems in place though.

“Our goal is to integrate the digital signage, the desktop alerts, the siren and the text message alerts into one interface,” Hildebrand said. “By May of this year, we will have that interface in place.”

With the many systems in place it comes down to the problem with the immediate response. It is the weakest link in the system, but someone has to be willing to push the button.

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