If an apocalypse happened tomorrow, all you would have to do is look around and you’d know what was going on.
But in the case of a more opaque emergency, such as a gunman on campus, possible bomb threat or even a snow day, over half the campus is out of the loop.
“Humans are inherently bad communicators,” said Bryant Haley, emergency management coordinator at Portland State University. “I mean, have you ever been in a relationship?”
According to Haley, in August there were approximately 12,500 students signed up for PSU Alert, the service that rapidly notifies the PSU community by text, voicemail and email in the case of an emergency. There were just under 30,000 students in 2011–12.
Haley says he would like more people to be signed up.
Keeping people informed when things are falling apart is tough, he explained. “In an emergency, 85 percent of the time communication breaks down. Just look at the FBI when 9/11 happened.”
If there were a crime at PSU, the university is required under the 1990 Clery Act to provide “timely warning” to the entire campus. Compliance is achieved via email, an announcement on its website, printed notices posted at visible locations and through feeding information to local media.
These legally required timely warnings are only somewhat effective, however. Many people would be away from computers, and those who are working may not check email or the PSU website frequently enough. And people can miss signs around campus.
Therefore, PSU and many other universities offer a quicker and more personal alert service, locally called PSU Alert. This provides rapid notification, and offers more information than the legally mandated Timely Warnings. In addition, PSU Alert users can opt into information updates about weather or even traffic emergencies.
Haley described how as a child, he used to have to wait for a scrolling ticker on the morning news to announce whether there was a snow day at his school. Now the information can be delivered to the public via a simple email or text message.
And people are much more likely to check their phones in one of these emergencies, Haley pointed out.
Currently, anyone wanting to receive the alerts must sign up for the service.
But Chris Broderick, vice president for communications and marketing, suggests that students could be opted in to the alerts by default. This poses its own challenges, he said.
Haley says one issue is the decentralized nature of the PSU student body. Many live off-campus and may not wish to receive text messages about campus emergencies. It also causes a problem with collecting and verifying accurate data from everyone.
“There’s advantages to both,” Campus Public Safety Chief Phil Zerzan said. “The broader number of people we can reach, the better.”
Spreading the Word
There’s been an awareness campaign headed by Haley to get more students signed up for the alerts. He has been posting signs all around campus with the website to sign up for the alerts and has been spreading information to new students.
Hired in October of 2007, Haley says he was charged with marketing and implementing a quick alert system in the wake of the Virginia Tech campus shootings of 2007.
“It became clear the government was going to require a notification system.” he said.
Broderick thinks that it’s especially important to spread awareness this fall, as new students have arrive and may have missed out on hearing about PSU Alerts.
“And mostly, they’re weather alerts,” Broderick said, emphasizing that genuine emergencies are few and far between.
The last big PSU alert involved a non-PSU student who pulled a gun on a CPSO officer near Parking Structure 3 in June. The entire area was closed off by police as a search scene, and traffic and campus movement was impeded.
The man was later arrested at a local Fred Meyer in a police stand-off. PSU Alert kept the campus informed of developments all throughout the day as police searched the area.
Sign up for PSU alerts
Broderick said that during emergencys, such as the recent parking garage incident, his office receives a lot of calls from the public quickly wanting to know what was going on.
“We tell them that this is why it would be helpful if they had PSU Alerts,” Broderick said.
Haley says there is at least one test alert every year, with the possibility of running a quarterly test message, but CPSO tries to keep drills as infrequent as possible.
“We need to have as many as possible on this so they know what’s going on,” he said.
Students and faculty can sign up to receive PSU Alerts on the web by logging into my.pdx.edu and clicking on the following links:
1. Personal Information
2. PSU Alert Emergency Notification
3. Enter Phone, Text and Email