Text message alert system plans released

The University’s top security officer pledged Tuesday that GW would quickly implement a text message alert system to notify the community of threats, and apologized for its lagging response to the near-campus arrest of two armed juveniles late Monday.

Students laid heavy criticism on the University for a gap in communication while two armed suspects entered Foggy Bottom.

University Police Department officers and spokespersons for the Metropolitan Police Department both said Tuesday that it is not known if the Monday night shooting in Georgetown and the arrests in Foggy Bottom were connected.

A technology failure stopped a Crime Alert from going out after the University was notified of the threat of armed men near campus, but students questioned the electronic silence GW maintained until just after midnight.

“I apologize for the delay in notification,” Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell said. “It was caused by some technical issues…but we are working hard right now to put a new system in place that’s going to be faster. It’s going to be more reliable.”

It is unlikely GW violated the Clery Act because of the limited time-span during which University Police officers knew of a potentially ongoing threat, Darnell said. Gunshots ripped through 28th and M streets starting at 10:49 p.m. Monday, according to police documents, but that event was too far off campus to be an explicit threat, he said.

UPD Chief Kevin Hay said the department was notified of a disturbance along the I Street Mall, near the Foggy Bottom Metro between 23rd and 24th streets, shortly before 11 p.m. Darnell said when that threat was confirmed, officials started the process to send an alert to the community.

An updated electronic security system accidentally blocked the Crime Alert from sending, the University’s Chief Information Officer David Steinour said.

Before the alert reached students, Metropolitan Police officers had already arrested two armed suspects with aid from the University Police Department.

“There was a possible ongoing threat to the University, and we took that very seriously, and were in the process of putting out a Crime Alert explaining what had happened. Before we could even put that Crime Alert out, we had arrested the guy. It was over with. It was done. It was done within 10 to 15 minutes,” Darnell, who helped found the Center for Homeland Defense and Security and came to GW last year, said.

The Clery Act, passed in 1990, calls for colleges to “immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on the campus.”

Because the suspects were arrested shortly after GW was notified, Darnell said, the threat was not immediate.

The arrests didn’t stop misinformation from permeating through campus as students near the crime scenes questioned reporters and police officers for information about ongoing danger. It took GW more than 45 minutes after the arrests to break radio silence and post a message on Twitter and Facebook about the events.

“At approximately 11:15 PM, GWPD was notified of armed suspects in the I Street Mall area. Both suspects have been caught by MPD,” the Twitter message read.

A Crime Alert repeating that message hit the majority of inboxes at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Steinour said the technological glitch that delayed the Crime Alert has been fixed and would likely not occur if an alert was sent out again. Despite that fix, Steinour and Darnell agreed the University needs a faster method of contacting students during emergencies. Even without technological malfunctions, the e-mail system can take up to an hour for any Infomail or Crime Alert to reach all 50,000 recipients.

To expand the means of emergency communication, Darnell made public Tuesday the University’s intent to launch a text message alert system that would send messages almost immediately to the community through their phones.

“We expect to have that up and running in the very near future,” Darnell said. “We have already gone forward with that process and we’re in the implementation phase of that new system.”

He declined to say anything, beyond “soon,” for when the system would be operational for all students.

He also declined to say specifically when the University signed a contract with Cooper Notification to implement the text message system, but said the process started after Hurricane Irene and an earthquake struck campus in late August. GW was criticized then for an initial lack of communication over safety plans.

Text message alert systems gained momentum after the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 because of their ability to quickly disseminate emergency alerts. Last year, Campus Safety Magazine polled campus protection officials, finding that 58 percent of schools use text messages for emergency notifications. In an interview during his first month at the University in 2010, Darnell said he wanted to evaluate GW’s security programs before implementing new measures, but pointed to a text messaging system as a likely priority.

“We hope that in the very near future to have this system in place…that will be faster, it will be more reliable, it will utilize e-mail, it will utilize text messaging,” Darnell said.

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