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Tragedy Puts Alert-SJSU in the Spotlight

Share your feedback and suggestions on improving crisis communications
By Cyril Manning, Director of Communications

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When gunfire rang out at SJSU’s 10th Street Garage on Tuesday night, the murder-suicide left three dead and the campus community buzzing with questions and anxiety. In the hours immediately following the shooting, many students who had registered with the campus emergency message system Alert-SJSU were surprised and frustrated that they didn’t receive an immediate text message warning them of the unfolding events.

The event was contained within minutes of being reported, and triggered a series of emergency communications from campus officials, including an announcement through campus speakerphones and emergency phones within 20 minutes of the event. But for many in the community, the information was too little, too late.

How Alert-SJSU works
“We want to be able to provide urgent instructions that can save lives—for example, to shelter in place or to avoid a dangerous area,” said SJSU Chief of Police Peter Decena. “The idea behind Alert-SJSU has not been to provide information updates to the campus. Things happen too fast in a real emergency.”

When a major crime occurs, all available police resources are enlisted to respond to the situation, aid any victims, interview witnesses and manage a chaotic scene. Only in an incident with a current, ongoing threat would an officer or dispatcher be expected to break away from the emergency at hand to send an emergency message to the campus via Alert-SJSU.

Police emphasize that if the May 10 tragedy had played out differently—for example, if there had been any immediate threat to lives or safety—the UPD commander’s first priority would have been to break from other pressing duties to send an immediate text message, email and PA announcement to Alert-SJSU users instructing the public how to avoid the threat.

Room for improvement
Clearly, however, many individuals who have signed up for Alert-SJSU have different expectations. Several have raised the legitimate point that having no information or hearing rumors only increases public anxiety about an emergency situation. On the other hand, when Alert-SJSU was used in October 2009 to notify the campus of a still-at-large shooting suspect near campus, university police received hundreds of complaints from people who felt they had been unnecessarily bothered.

It may be impossible to please everyone, but the university’s experience this week does provide valuable lessons for future emergencies. Options being discussed include making the alert system opt-out rather than opt-in (meaning students, faculty and staff would automatically receive all alert messages); designating personnel beyond UPD to share the responsibility for sending alert messages during an emergency; and revising the threshold for what types of incidents will trigger a message.

As we continue to improve our crisis communications plan, we are seeking the community’s feedback and ideas. To share your feedback on this issue, please email cyril.manning@sjsu.edu.