Friday, December 4, 2009

Virginia Tech's Notification Failures and What It Means to You

The Virginia Tech shooting is one of the most significant emergency events in the past decade. Certainly because of the scope of the tragedy, but from a communication standpoint few events have done more to change the public's expectation of emergency communications and public warnings.

Today's announcement of updates to the investigation findings putting further blame on administration officials for failure to properly warn the campus community will only add to the pressure on all emergency management professionals. Certainly, following the event and the focus on the failure to warn, every student on every campus has the expectation that the administration will have the capability of alerting them via multiple means when an event is occurring that may put them at risk. Administrators have rushed to meet this need and mass notification companies have rushed to fill the vacuum.

But, if students have that expectation, what about the person on the street who looks to you to protect them in a bad event? Do they have similar expectations? Many jurisdictions and agencies have also moved to adopt mass notification technologies--particularly text messaging and automated telephone messaging systems. I am concerned that many are missing some key elements of the public warning requirement but that is another subject for another day.

Consider a scenario in your town, city or community: a major crime spree happens in a building or area. The news media on the scene starts talking to citizens as they are certain to do:
"Were you warned by text message or telephone message or email alerts?"
"If you had been do you think it might have saved lives?"
"What do you think should be done about this?" Fire those who didn't protect us.

You may think it a most unrealistic scenario, but so did the administrators at VT. Now they will forever carry with them the stigma of this investigation report. Someone has to be blamed and in this case it came down to failure to warn.

My suggestion: 1) start doing some formal or informal research in your community about expectation of public warnings.
2) Investigate and list all the methods currently available to warn the public about imminent threats and build use of those methods into your plans.
3) Identify the gaps in technology and services and work to fill them (grants are likely available to assist with this particularly if you work with the region, for example UASI funds can be used for these purposes.)
4) Drill and test.

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