Promoting UNL safety through communication

Video and photo story by Jeff Packer

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Thomas Taege, above, is signed up to receive text messages and emails from UNL Alert when an emergency takes place on campus.

Thomas Taege was at his campus job when he heard about the report of a gunman on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus.

But Taege did not receive the alert, even though he signed up last semester. The UNL sophomore had a fellow employee fill him in on the situation when that colleague received an email from UNL Alert, a program started by the UNL Police Department three years ago. The system is designed to contact recipients if an emergency occurs that the department deems worthy of informing all students and staff signed up for the service.

According to the UNL Alert website, the program allows UNLPD to notify students and staff at UNL of any emergencies via phone calls, text messages, and emails. The calls can be placed to both cell phones and landlines. Those emergencies extend to anything from a threat of violence on campus to severe weather in the area.  Currently, 14,880 recipients are signed up to receive messages from UNL Alert. More than 24,000 are enrolled at UNL and faculty and staff totals nearly 16,000. Recently, the UNL student government body ASUN voted to enroll all students in the UNL Alert program, unless they choose to remove themselves from the list.While the program has no serious complaints on file, students have expressed concern over its effectiveness.

“I never really got any information, email or text, about that,” Taege said of the East Campus threat. “People were kind of upset that they weren’t hearing about that. I didn’t hear about it either.”

The most recent UNL Alert message was March 11, when a note containing a bomb threat was found in the College of Business Administration.

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The College of Business Administration bomb threat saw the building emptied for roughly 40 minutes while police searched inside.

Taege, studying business administration, said despite the lack of communication for the East Campus threat, he still finds the system to be beneficial.

“Yea, it’s helpful – there was the bomb threat in CBA and I found out about that, so I was actually able to avoid it when I would have normally been there,” Taege said. “It was good to know about that kind of thing.”

Still, not everyone has signed up for the alert. Vanessa Gorman, a professor of history at UNL, is among those, but said she believes it is beneficial.

“I think it’s good,” Gorman said. “Because you’ve got to know about those things. You can’t just hear about it through word of mouth.”

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Aaron Pembleton, UNLPD education and training officer, said there may be one reason students like Taege didn’t receive an alert after the sighting of a gunman Feb. 24. Due to a mishap, some students were mistakenly removed from the alert system, Pembleton said.

“It’s something that we’re working on and we send out, you know, something on Facebook and then also on our web page to tell people to check it – do a once-a-year check to make sure all your stuff is still in the system,” Pembleton said.

When considering how other social media augment the emergency communication on campus, Megan Homolka, a junior at UNL, said she frequents the Twitter page of UNL News.  Run by the University Communications office, the UNL News Twitter keeps followers updated on university happenings. Homolka has followed the office’s Twitter page for roughly eight months and said the difference between the two information sources has led to some frustration with UNL Alert.

“They update it (Twitter) more frequently, more thoroughly and quicker than they would for UNL Alert,” Homolka said of the UNL News Twitter page.

Homolka said she has found UNL News provides recent information in periodical reports, keeping students briefed on a situation. On the other hand, UNL Alert contacts recipients at the beginning and the conclusion of the crisis. Although UNL Alert’s mission is to inform students and staff as quickly as possible, Homolka said she feels the notification procedures  limit UNL Alert’s effectiveness.

“It wasn’t just one, ‘hey, there’s a shooter on east campus’ message,” Homolka said of the UNL News updates. “You get more details that way and I find it more informative in that regard.”

Homolka also shared concerns of the system’s timeliness. She received Twitter posts from UNL News on the East Campus threat roughly a half hour before being notified by UNL Alert. Homolka said she is signed up to receive only texts from the UNLPD system.

In terms of timeliness, UNLPD Assistant Chief Fred Gardy said the department’s communication relies on the service providers, such as phone companies and telecommunication providers. With more than 14,000 recipients currently scheduled to receive alerts, contacting everyone at the same time can be difficult.

“Our message package goes out instantly,” Gardy said. “It then has to go to the different companies that essentially send or deliver that message. I suppose people think that 14,000 messages are going to hit simultaneously. That’s not going to happen.”

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The UNLPD dispatch center is responsible for sending out the alerts.

Gardy said UNLPD is doing all it can to alert those signed up for the system by preparing the message and hitting the send button.  The process is out of the department’s hands once telecommunication providers are involved, Gardy said. Until the methods for delivery are improved by those companies, the system cannot work any faster.

Pembleton said he hasn’t heard any complaints, other than recipients being mistakenly removed from the system.

“It’s a very effective tool for us to have,” Pembleton said. “And in the event there is a true situation that happens on campus, you know, we reach so many people so fast with that.”

To sign up for UNL Alert, visit http://emergency.unl.edu/unlalert/. To follow UNL News on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/#!/UNLNews .

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