Error spreads concern over WU’s emergency plan
Wednesday morning’s false emergency announcement left students confused and worried after a staff member taking an online test set the system off by accident.
An undisclosed Washington University employee was taking a computer-based test to check her knowledge of the school’s year-old Alertus emergency response system when she accidentally switched out of the test and sent out a real university-wide alert.
Within 90 seconds, sirens were going off across each Washington University campus. While the “all clear” signal was sent only two minutes and 15 seconds later, the text message and email alerts, which a third party releases periodically over about half an hour, arrived to students at different times and sometimes in the wrong order—informing people of a campus threat after they were told everything was safe.
“I was freaked when I got the texts [that] there was an emergency,” sophomore Masha Popelyukhina said. “I heard the sirens and got them in the right order, but…I do think it’s important that all these things function well in case there is a real emergency, which could easily be the case. I think this little fake emergency opened eyes to what could happen if it wasn’t fake.”
“We heard the sirens going off in class but just thought they were some building alarms,” sophomore Sydney Kapp said. “I didn’t have my phone or email open in class, so I didn’t get a notification that there was an emergency until much later. It’s a little disconcerting that I was so unaware because it might be bad if it were real.”
The University’s emergency sirens went off at about 10:28 a.m., and the “all clear” signal was sent at around 10:31 a.m. Some students did not receive email alerts until after 10:50 a.m.
The school’s emergency website temporarily crashed due to an influx of visitors.
“It’s hard to say this now, but it really was beneficial in the long run,” Steven Givens, associate vice chancellor for public affairs, said. “We learned a lot today…most importantly that our website couldn’t handle that amount of traffic at one time.”
“We can start reacting to that and put a better system in place,” Givens added.
Outside the website malfunction, every other part of the University’s emergency alert system worked properly, said Matt Arthur, director of incident communication solutions.
The school’s email, text message and phone alerts go through Everbridge, a communication company that runs emergency communication for more than 100 higher educational institutions nationally. Arthur said the system sent tens of thousands of messages within half an hour, reaching most individuals by at least one method of communication within 10 minutes.
“All universities that I’m aware of go through a third-party company. That certainly sprang up after Virginia Tech.,” Arthur said, referring to the 2007 campus shooting.
Givens said the false alarm is beneficial in that it showed how people would respond to an actual emergency as opposed to an announced drill that many students simply ignore.
“We certainly are sorry if we scared people…but we are glad people responded,” Givens said. “We didn’t do it on purpose but since it happened, let’s learn from it—and we have.”
Some students noted that the false alert highlighted the lack of a well-publicized contingency plan for emergencies other than fire drills.
“It made me think of what exactly I would do in a situation where there was actually an emergency,” freshman Arjay Parhar said. “I realized that I really didn’t know where to go or what to do, which is a little scary. I think maybe the University should do a little more briefing on that, maybe at orientation or something.”
Other students said they found the sirens more confusing than worrisome.
“I just heard the sirens and figured they were a test or something,” sophomore Alyssa Johanson said. “I looked out the window, and it didn’t seem like there was a tornado or any kind of natural disaster.”
“Initially I thought it was a fire alarm, I guess, but then I realized that it could be anything. I really didn’t know what to think. But I figured I was safe on the third floor of the library,” sophomore Andrew Schoer said. “By the time I got to the website, the ‘all clear’ [audio announcement] came. And so it wasn’t too scary.”
Chief of Police Don Strom could not be reached for comment.
With additional reporting by Divya Kumar, Sahil Patel and Sadie Smeck.