Color-coded safety alerts heightens emergency awareness, experts say

Media Credit: Emma Caamano | Photographer

Students can now tell the severity of emergencies on campus by glancing at the color of the official alert.

The University’s new color-coded safety alert system will improve students’ awareness and education about responding to on-campus emergencies, campus security experts said.

Officials announced late last semester that the University was beginning to switch to a color-coded system that demarcates the severity of a security situation to alert students about safety issues occurring on and near campus. Scott Burnotes, the associate vice president of safety and security, said the department updated the alert system to provide clearer and more concise messages about emergency situations on campus.

He said the color-coded system will begin with either the word “advisory” in yellow, which signals an event or disruption on campus, or “alert” in red, which notifies students of significant emergencies or threats on campus.

“If there is a significant emergency occurring on campus that threatens life safety, like a shooting, the message will be labeled as an ALERT,” Burnotes said in an email. “An advisory is to give you an FYI. An alert is telling you to take immediate protective action.”

He said the department met with the Student Advisory Board, which formed in 2019 to regularly provide administrators with student feedback about safety issues on campus when creating the new alert system.

“They are a great sounding board for initiatives we plan to address around campus,” he said. “Students mentioned that it is important for them to know how ‘important’ a message is, specifically, the difference between a timely warning – an advisory – and an alert that there is an immediate threat to their safety.”

Burnotes added that the department plans to “regularly” share information about upcoming safety classes with the community.

“Information regarding those types of training falls under awareness safety campaigns,” he said. “The Division of Safety and Security intends to regularly share the crime prevention training that we provide with the GW community.”

Campus security experts said the University’s switch to a color-coded system is an efficient manner to inform anyone receiving alerts of the severity of a situation and how they can best respond.

Darrell Jeter, the director of emergency management and planning at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, said GW’s updated safety alert system can quickly provide students how severe an on-campus emergency is and allows them to immediately decide how to handle a situation.

“To have those distinctions really helps the audience, the recipient of those notifications, draw a distinction on the immediate impact and or threat, the occurrence may present to them,” Jeter said.

He said the color-coded alert system paired with officials’ other efforts to improve security on campus, like signing community members up for emergency text notifications, will have a “tremendous” impact on improving campus security.

The University switched from an opt-in to an opt-out method for emergency text alerts in November after officials announced that nearly half of the community didn’t receive text alerts.

Jeter said added campaigns for safety classes – like CPR and floor warden trainings, which prepare students to become points of contact in an emergency situation – provide students access to skills they could use when police officers aren’t available to assist students in an emergency. He added that the trainings can help students learn to handle a situation near them if police officers are tending to other areas of campus.

“Being informed about what can happen and what to do if and when it does happen is that first step to preparedness,” he said.

Ronnie Grice, the assistant vice president for public safety at Kansas State University, said his department uses a safety alert system without color-coding, which has worked well for the school community because it provides students with direct information about how to handle an emergency. He said the color-coded system may be “confusing” for students to keep track of which color signifies which type of security threat and not know how to respond to each alert.

“In our alert system, we just come right out and we just tell the university community what’s going on,” Grice said. “Because even when the United States government was using it, it was confusing.”

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