Speed up system for sending campus warning messages

UK’s emergency notification system faced its first major tests last week—and failed both.

Text and phone messages from UK Alert about a tornado warning Feb. 6 reached only 4,500 of the 7,000 properly registered users, many of whom did not get the warnings until the storm had passed. The next night, when shots were fired during a fight at Greg Page Apartments, messages about the incident were not sent until five hours later.

Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect the system’s first test to go off without a hitch. But the trial run should have come shortly after signups started Jan. 14, not during a tornado warning three weeks later.

With an early test, UK could have anticipated the low rate of successfully sent messages, which was 61 percent during the storms and went only slightly up to 65 percent in the first run after the shooting. Technical fixes could have been worked out before, rather than in the wake of, two potentially life-threatening situations.

However, the handling of the gunshot incident shows that technology isn’t UK Alert’s only problem. UK officials need to tighten their procedures for sending messages about campus security threats, by both speeding up the reporting process and recognizing that it should not be used when there is no urgent threat.

UK police got a report at 7:37 p.m. Wednesday about the incident; by about 9 p.m., police had confirmed that shots were fired amid a fight and notified the Office of Emergency Management, which runs UK Alert. However, officials waited to send a message until 12:34 a.m., when they had enough information to include full descriptions of the suspects.

“Had this been a situation where there was an active shooter, we would have had the message out in a few minutes,” UK spokesman Jay Blanton told the Kernel.

But UK Alert’s purpose is to keep people out of immediate danger, not to just let them know what’s going on. If officials could afford to wait three hours to alert campus, they should have done so through a campuswide e-mail instead of UK Alert.

When students and employees get a message from UK Alert, they need to know it demands their attention. That won’t happen if UK gets in the habit of using the system for untimely notifications.

Moreover, indications of how the system would perform in case of a truly pressing emergency are not reassuring: At the earliest, the first round of messages would have been sent an hour and a half after the shooting. If there were an active shooter on campus, the consequences of such a long delay would be unthinkable.

Without a doubt, UK has come far since a year ago—when there would have been zero, rather than 4,500, messages about the tornado. But there is still progress to be made before UK Alert will reach its full potential.

To avoid a repeat of last week’s blunders, UK police and the Office of Emergency Management need to develop stronger guidelines for which situations merit UK Alert messages and to streamline the incident-reporting process.

What UK doesn’t need is a system that sends late, less-than-critical messages—one that endangers campus by preserving the illusion of security without actually providing it.