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Lessons learned from Virginia Tech Breaking news, Campus life, PR musings

Put yourself in the shoes of an RIT Public Safety Officer early Wednesday morning. You have three separate incidents happening at nearly the same time:

1) A student with mental health issues is despondent and is threatening to hurt himself.
2) Another student has had too much to drink and may need hospitalization due to alcohol poisoning.
3) Another student is distraught and is suicidal. A Monroe County 911 operator has information that tells you this student may have a weapon. You have other details from authorities that tell you this is a dangerous situation that may escalate.

Instinct and professional training kicked in for RIT Public Safety Wednesday morning. And they activated the RIT Alert notification system.

The language was blunt, as it should be for a credible threat: “R.I.T. Alert! Take Cover. Possible Armed suicidal person on campus. Go into nearest room. Lock or barricade the door. Follow instructions from authorities.”

When the crisis was resolved about an hour later, another alert went out detailing that the incident was over and all was clear. The distraught student was safe and in proper care (as were the other two students).

There were some glitches to the RIT Alert system and emergency communications that we have already outlined to the community. We will continue to tweak and improve our system.

We heard from some of you who live off campus and were “inconvenienced” by losing some sleep. We heard your complaints and will use your feedback.

But you will get no apologies!

In today’s world, working 9 to 5 is a thing of the past. What if you were working in a lab or office late at night? What if this had transpired at 4:30 a.m. and extended into the start of the workday while you were commuting to campus? When Public Safety activates RIT Alert, every second counts. Segmenting messages was not an option (yet).

If there is one thing we learned from the massacre at Virginia Tech, it is that it is better to over communicate, than to offer no communication or instructions. A Virginia panel blamed the university for not alerting the VT campus between the first dorm shooting and the rampage occurring two hours later.

We’ve heard from some on campus that they are now going to opt out of RIT Alert. I caution you that this is a mistake. And if you have not done so already, please sign up.

Back to Wednesday morning: University News dealt with media crews for about 90 minutes. At Virginia Tech, media camped out for a month. Due to the strong relationships University News has built with the Rochester media (many UNS staff members have held leadership positions in previous jobs with these media outlets) the coverage was fair and accurate, as you will see from Channel 13 and Channel 8.

On to social media (Make sure to read the blog post of Mike Saffran, Associate Director/Manager of New Media) … University News was criticized somewhat for its use of social media. While we did post information on Facebook and Twitter, in retrospect we could have done a better job of combating some of the misinformation that was being communicated by so-called citizen journalists. This included the irresponsible act of broadcasting “2 dead” at Colony Manor.

We live by this mantra in University News: Accuracy, clarity of message, speed. Accuracy must trump speed every time.

So we will learn from Wednesday morning and continue to improve our emergency communications plan for the inevitable next crisis.

Here is the final headline: “RIT Wakes Up Wednesday to a Safe Campus.” Tweet that.

  1. Sue C.
    Mar 19

    I am the parent of an RIT sophomore, and I couldn't agree with this more! We got the 1:30 call and subsequent “all clear,” and it did cause some stress and anxiety to my daughter and to us, but if that is the price that must be paid for safety, then so be it. Thank you for publishing this.

  2. Mark E. Mooney
    Mar 19

    Right on! The alert system worked as advertised. This one was a lucky non-event. That won't always be the case. Good Job All.

  3. Powers
    Mar 19

    Overcommunicating as the lesser of two evils: perhaps, but consider that at 2 in the morning, the vast majority of people are in bed and sleeping, perfectly safe. By waking them up with phone calls to landlines, you actually increased the odds that someone would put themselves in harm's way. Not to mention calling landlines for students who live on the other side of the county, who were not only asleep but would have had to drive twenty minutes to campus just to be anywhere near the incident.

    Yes, it's good that RIT has an alert system, but spamming an alert to landline telephones at 2 in the morning is an abuse of that system, and you should not be at all surprised that people are removing themselves from it.

  4. Bob Finnerty
    Mar 19

    We are working on the home phone application. "Abuse of the system"... I can only imagine what the Virginia Tech community would say to that. Many were getting ready for work at home during the first shooting.

    Opt out of RIT Alert? Don't complain when we close campus for a weather-related incident and you miss the call.

  5. Brian
    Mar 19

    I was actually at my desk in my office when the Alert went out and my cell phone was on vibrate in my coat pocket. Why wasn’t there an RIT Alert e-mail and why didn’t we get RIT Alert voicemails to our RIT phones?

  6. Matt
    Mar 19

    I was off campus and talking on the phone to my girlfriend when the alert went out. I got the notification immediately, her roommate got it about 3 minutes after... my girlfriend got the notifications 12 minutes after I first received the alert. All of us are on the Verizon network.. is this RIT’s issue or something out of their control?

    Just being curious,

  7. Nadia
    Mar 19

    As an RIT staff member and also the parent of a college student attending a university in another state, I would rather be woken up at any hour to be informed of a situation concerning my safety or that of my child’s vs. have any regret that I did not have information. Information is power. It helps us make the right decisions as Bob cited in his comments. The more information we have, the better poised we are to make good decisions! Thankfully we, as a college community, were spared tragedy, however, do you not think for one moment how much the parents and families of the slain victims at Virginia Tech would rather have been woken at 2 a.m. vs. having to bury their loved ones?! I think it's a good question to ask ourselves...perhaps before we worry so much about being "inconvenienced."

  8. Cheryl
    Mar 19

    As a staff member and a parent of a student going to RIT (commuter), I like the notification because if the situation was not cleared, I would make sure to stay home. How many times has there been a weather alert and RIT doesn’t announce that they are closed until 8 a.m. How many people who drive 30-45 mins to campus every weekday and find that campus is closed then have to drive all the way back home? I know several people (including myself up to 4 years ago).

    1 problem that I see is if you do not respond to the text message, you will be called at the next number (ie: for me it was the cell). If I didn’t respond, the house would have been called. That is annoying. At this point of time, cell phone notifications are fine with me.

    Can we choose which method(s)? I would choose text and cell. Not home phone.

  9. Liz
    Mar 19

    I am an RIT mom, who did receive the calls, as did our son. Even though our son was in PA at the time, you never know, he may have been on his way back to visit campus and friends. We will make sure he STAYS on the RIT alert system. A little lost sleep doesn’t compare to the possible lost lives! Thank you RIT!

  10. Roy
    Mar 19

    I was very impressed by the RIT Alert—it worked! I am here in Croatia and I was not concerned that I got the message. Nor was I concerned that I got it and All Clear twice. When I get home if I have a message on my answering machine, that will not bother me either. I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as too much communication. Many lives would have been saved had Virginia Polytechnic Institute had this system in place and used it.

    Thank you RIT for being proactive,


    Roy E. Pierce
    Instructor, Finance & Accounting
    Rochester Institute of Technology
    College of Applied Science & Technology
    American College of Management & Technology

  11. Andy
    Mar 19

    I actually am impressed with the way this is handled. I am a graduate student that works for a major university in the Philadelphia, and I was one of people instrumental to getting this kind of system set up for us. The way RITAlert handled this was absolutely spot on. We had the same growing pains that it appears RITAlert had on Wednesday. For those who don't wish to receive calls on their home number, you should be able to just delete that number out of the system on the site at emergency.rit.edu, however, I'm not 100% sure. Well done RIT, I am glad to see that this was handled appropriately.


  12. Ellen Shady
    Mar 19

    Bob, No question in my mind that the right decision was made. The alert system is still working out kinks, and improvements can be made. But RIT needs to consider the safety and best interests of its community. Can you imagine being a parent receiving that devastating call about a tragedy that could have been prevented? If the situation had been as dire as the initial reports to Public Safety indicated, and the RIT Alert had not been activated, I hate to think of the outcome...and the reaction to it.

  13. Sharon G
    Mar 19

    I am the parent of a student, and I say...Keep up the good work, please keep on over-communicating. This is not the first automated message we have received. I will say that this last communication was of a much better audio quality than the previous...we could actually understand what was being said.

  14. Brigette B.
    Mar 19

    I also am the parent of an RIT student. Though we are 8+ hours away, I am more than happy to lose a little sleep rather than wake up to the morning news reporting a tragedy. My son lives off-campus and slept through the entire incident. However, the alert system has no way of knowing the schedules of every person who could potentially be affected by the situation. It is certainly better to get information you don’t need than to get none at all; and it is just as important to get accurate information when it is released. I commend the school for having a system in place. I can’t protect him from everything. It is comforting to know others are watching out for him while he’s there. Keep up the good work. It is very much appreciated.

  15. Dianne
    Mar 19

    I am an RIT parent of an on-campus freshman. We received 2 alerts, and 2 all clear messages. Yes I was awakened 4 times, 8 hours away, but think of the endless sleepless nights that may have been averted. We visited VA Tech the day after the anniversary in 2009. Believe me, we NEVER want to experience the tragedy they experienced. There is sadness that none of us ever want to be a part of. RIT alert me as often as you see necessary. Just keep everyone SAFE. Thank you. Those of you who were awoken and find that a big problem...find something important to complain about.

  16. Adam Lohr
    Mar 19

    I’m sorry to say that from my view of the situation, the alert system did not work as advertised. I did not personally receive any alert until after the all-clears had been sent. Granted, I had not set up my new cell phone on the system yet, but I was subscribed to e-mail and IM (both of which would have been sufficient to notify me immediately). The email came in late and the IM was never sent. I’ve also talked to people who did not even receive the phone message until after the event was over. This leads me to be disappointed that there is no mention of improving the reliability of the system in the “What is RIT doing to improve the system?” section of the “Message Concerning RIT Alert Response.”

    I’d also like to take the opportunity to point out that the “All-Clear” e-mail message could be easily faked by any member of the student body, since the only indication of its validity was the value of the “From” header of the e-mail, which is notoriously easy to forge. In the unfortunate event that a technically-minded student were planning an attack, they could easily set this up to go out as a counter to the alert message (it’s not difficult to obtain a list of all the e-mail addresses of RIT students). One way to mitigate this would be to not actually say that any message from “RITAlert@rit.edu” is a valid message on the emergency information website. Actual status updates on the website would help as well.

  17. Mary Ascani
    Mar 20

    I am a parent of an RIT freshman who lives 5+hrs. from the campus and signed up for the alert system so I could be made aware of things happening in real time. Having been in the air on an American Airlines jet the morning of 9/11 as the first tower was hit, know all too well the angst that can be caused within a family not knowing what is going on with one of its members until you know they are safe. I think the system is great and RIT responded appropriately. Thanks for option for parents to be part of this system. Keep up the good work protecting our kids! Should encourage the students not to have their phones on vibrate however or think about another way of communicating within the campus as we knew about the situation before the student.

  18. Powers
    Mar 21

    I'm sorry, but calling off-campus landline phones at 2am is still absolutely ridiculous. You need to fix that immediately.

  19. Wayne
    Mar 22

    Very well written.

  20. Larry
    Mar 27

    Great job! Thank you.

  21. Anonymous
    Jun 05

    I'm sorry, but calling off-campus landline phones at 2am is still absolutely ridiculous. You need to fix that immediately.

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