Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, September 24, 2018

Threats show need for text alert system

Last week, college campuses nationwide were targets in a series of bomb threats. AU's Washington College of Law received a threat last Tuesday, and like the other threats, no bomb was found and no attack occurred, The Eagle previously reported.

Such reports raise concerns in students like Hillary Shankman, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, about their safety in a high-profile city.

"It worries me when I read e-mails from Public Safety about the bomb threats and attending school in D.C. where terrorism is rising quickly again," Shankman said.

Colleges received the bomb threats around the time large grocery and discount stores got calls from someone threatening to bomb the store if employees did not wire money to an offshore account, according to The Associated Press. There was no relation between the store threats and the campus threats, according to FBI investigators quoted in the AP's story.

When threats occur on AU's campus, Public Safety responds accordingly, according to Public Safety Chief Michael McNair. The department's role is to ensure the safety of students on campus from interior and exterior threats. However, Public Safety officers are unarmed, so they must follow careful procedures when dealing with threats, McNair said.

"We notify the Metropolitan Police Department of the threat, and they respond," McNair said. "We then act as backup to the MPD to handle the situation. To date, this methodology has served us well."

According to McNair, AU also has several different emergency evacuation procedures that apply to scenarios such as bombings and biochemical attacks. The type of evacuation used will be determined by the situation at the time, said McNair.

The AU Web site lists detailed emergency management procedures under the Office of Risk Management and Safety Services. In cases of emergency, the president is notified and convenes the president's cabinet at an off-campus emergency operations center. After reviewing the situation, the president takes a course of action that can include evacuation, cancellation of classes or a shutdown of the university. If the president is absent, the provost must act in his place.

A trained emergency response team and a trained emergency assistance staff assist the president and his cabinet.

In the event of an evacuation, the provost and vice president will activate the procedures, according to the Web site.

"Alternative evacuation sites will be designated if primary sites are not available or if the situation requires long-term evacuation," according to the Web site.

Members of the campus community should be prepared to deal with an emergency event, McNair said.

"Students, staff, faculty and parents should review and familiarize themselves with the campus and D.C. emergency procedures by going to prepared.american.edu," he said.

McNair also said that students, staff and faculty should register on the Alert DC system. The Alert DC system is a three-part citizen emergency notification system. On its Web site, the system lists notifications via text messaging, voice messaging and radio stations.

Students can receive information about what is going on in the D.C. area, including Metro closings, university closings and severe weather.

The alerts are sent by the District of Columbia Emergency Management Agency, according to the Web site. The DCEMA uses the Roam Secure Network used by governments, emergency management agencies and first responders to keep connected.

Jon Weakley, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, subscribes to the Alert DC System.

"In light of the massacre at Virginia Tech, I thought it was a great idea that AU joined the city in implementing an alert system to notify us of any university and city emergency," Weakley said.

Julie Oswald, a sophomore in the School of International Service, also signed up for the service about a month ago.

"I did it because it was a good idea and AU told me about it," she said.

For Oswald, the system's benefits have not been clearly defined.

"I think it's because I haven't had it for that long," Oswald said.

Students who want to have the Alert DC system can follow the link on AU's Emergency Preparedness page. Once in the system, students will receive notifications in real time along with any necessary instructions, according to the system's Web site.

Subscribers choose which devices and e-mail accounts the messages can be sent to, with a limit of two e-mail addresses and another two devices.

"What I really like about it is that I can customize what types of emergencies are sent to my phone," Weakley said. "For example, I might really be interested in weather or security warnings, but not so much traffic tie-ups."

Another student said the service did not work as she expected it to.

"It keeps sending me weather alerts even though I specifically asked them not to," said Megan Yarbrough, a freshman in SPA.

Another student said he didn't subscribe to the system because he did not have text messaging capabilities on his phone.

"I don't have text messaging because I'm stingy, and I don't want to pay for it, so I don't want to get the D.C. alert," said Dan Raby, a freshman in SPA.


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