Crisis communications Mark Briggs, campus risk manager, chairs a campus committee that will select an emergency alert system for the Urbana campus that could send thousands of text and audio messages nearly instantaneously. Similar systems are being adopted by many universities, government agencies and companies to speed communication in emergencies prompted by events such as natural disasters or acts of violence.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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Cell phones may become more than just a means for keeping in touch with family, friends and co-workers: They could become part of a new emergency alert system at the Urbana campus.
The Emergency Notification Committee, which comprises staff members from the divisions of Housing, and Safety and Compliance as well the Office of Admissions and Records and other units, is procuring an emergency electronic communications system.
Electronic communication systems such as the one the UI is planning to buy can work with phones, cell phones, computers and pagers to quickly broadcast audio and text messages to thousands of people. Authorized personnel can initiate communications from any telephone or computer with Web access, and recipients can choose their preferred means of receiving messages.
The system could be used to alert employees about less critical incidents, such as boil orders and utility outages; to call in plumbers, electricians or other workers when emergency repairs are needed; or by unit administrators at their discretion to communicate with faculty and staff members, although the UI does not plan to use the system in those contexts, at least initially. The Emergency Notification Committee is developing policies and procedures governing use of the system, such as who could use it and in what circumstances.
The system could be operational on the Urbana and Springfield campuses by the beginning of the fall semester. Officials at the Chicago campus are developing their own communication plans and do not plan to adopt the system at this time, said Mark Briggs, campus risk manager and the committee’s chair.
Campus officials had been considering an emergency alert system for several years, “but when we first started looking there really wasn’t anything that met our needs,” Briggs said. “The technology really matured after Sept. 11 to the point that there are a number of highly qualified vendors out there.”
Although some vendors offer messaging service free in exchange for being allowed to send advertising messages to users, the UI will not be using one of those vendors. “The very clear message that we got from students through informal discussions was, ‘If you start sending me advertisements, I’m going to block the number,’ ” Briggs said. “Another very clear message from students was that there’s a lot of support for this as long as it’s used in a way that they deem appropriate and important.”
The UI may establish it as an “opt out” system, meaning that users who don’t want to be included will have to request that they be excluded.
The day after the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech, Illinois graduate student Nathan VanHoudnos collected more than 1,155 signatures of faculty and staff members and students through an online petition on Facebook.com, and sent the petition to the chancellor along with a letter urging campus administration to purchase an electronic emergency alert system.
Currently, the UI sends safety messages to the campus community primarily through e-mail, as well as through local media such as radio and television, and a phone-tree system that begins with a call from the campus police to the chancellor, whose staff members then call other units, and so on until messages are disseminated to appropriate people across campus.
The campus is investigating other potential emergency communication systems as well, including the possibility of broadcasting messages over National Weather Service radios through the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency.
“That would notify all of Champaign County, not just the UI, but it would reach those radios where they are positioned around campus,” said Kip Mecum, director of emergency planning in the Division of Public Safety. “That looks like it might be an alternative that’s plausible at this point.”
However, the campus would need to find funds to buy the radios for units that don’t have them already.
During a recent weekly emergency-planning meeting, campus officials also discussed using the UI’s tornado sirens to broadcast emergency notifications, an idea that was rejected because of concerns about audibility, clarity and the possibility of confusing people, Mecum said. They also discussed developing new signals for the fire-alarm system, but that too was rejected out of concern that people would become confused about how to respond if the fire alarms were used for multiple purposes. People now are conditioned to leave a building if a fire alarm sounds, not to seek shelter inside from an active threat, Mecum said.
The Office of Campus Emergency Planning is asking campus units to review their emergency operations plans to ensure that emergency notification procedures and contact lists are current. Emergency Operations Plan templates are available at www.ocep.uiuc.edu/templates.htm or call 333-1491.
Recognizing ‘signs’ may prevent violence
By Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
The April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech, in which student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and himself, have heightened concerns on all college campuses about personal safety, preventing violence and identifying and responding to people who are potential risks to themselves and others.
“The massacre of 32 students at Virginia Tech has left us shocked and saddened,” Chancellor Richard Herman wrote in an e-mail message to the Urbana campus. “As chancellor, I want to express the sympathy and concern I know each of us feels for the families and friends of the victims. As we grieve for the innocent victims of this shooting, please remember that the best way to help protect our campus community is to treat others with respect and civility and to report threatening behavior to the appropriate authorities immediately.”
Since 1984, the Urbana campus has had a Suicide Prevention Program and policy requiring any student who makes a suicide threat or attempt to attend four sessions of professional assessment, with the first assessment to occur within a week of the incident or the student’s release from the hospital and the remaining counseling sessions to occur, ideally, at weekly intervals. Students who fail to comply face a variety of possible sanctions, including academic encumbrance, disciplinary suspension and/or dismissal.
The Dean of Students Office may take additional steps, including contacting the student’s parents and/or significant other in the event of a potentially lethal suicide attempt or in the event of repeated suicide attempts.
Over the course of the more than two decades the program has been in existence, it has helped reduce the rate of student suicide by about half. The program’s efficacy stems from systematic, coordinated follow-up contact with the student by professionals at the Counseling Center and McKinley Health Center as well as the Office of the Dean of Students, University Housing, and the student’s academic department.
“I think that we are considered leaders not just in responding to suicide incidents but incidents in which there might be threats of violence as well,” said Paul Joffe, director of the suicide-prevention program and a counselor in the Counseling Center. “We have a very structured comprehensive response to threats.”
Additionally, the university also responds systematically to acts of violence and threats of violence toward others.
A resource for faculty and staff members who need assistance with personal or work-related problems is the Faculty/Staff Assistance Program. The program, which is staffed by two clinical social workers and a graduate assistant counselor, offers crisis counseling and assessment, and assists employees in coordinating services with appropriate providers, such as rape crisis services or mental health professionals. The program keeps emergency time slots open each day to meet with people in crisis, and has a 24-hour crisis hotline.
“We will go out and provide consultation if units have concerns about an employee,” said Terry Jobin, the program’s director. “We’re very responsive about doing that quickly.”
FSAP staff members typically are called upon two or three times each month to assess employees whose behavior is affecting their workplaces. The FSAP also offers a workshop, “Supervisory Training,” that assists administrators in identifying troubled employees, documenting performance problems and referring employees to the program.
A co-worker, supervisor or instructor could have cause for concern if a colleague’s or student’s behavior seems to change suddenly, if the person just seems “not himself,” if the person talks about feeling as if life isn’t worth living, or if they have uncontrolled anger or a plan to harm others or themselves (see “Early warning signs,” below).
Jobin cautioned that while these symptoms and behaviors can aid in identifying and referring people who may need help, the symptoms and behaviors must be viewed within the context of a person’s life experience, environment and past and are not universal indicators that someone is a danger to themselves or to others.
If a person’s behavior indicates they could be a threat to themselves or others, “the appropriate human resources office would look into the matter, make sure that the facts warrant a response, and may call together a group that would include police, legal counsel, possibly representatives from the chancellor’s and the provost’s offices and college or departmental offices to discuss what actions should be taken,” said Peg Rawles, associate chancellor. “That can be done very quickly, within 24 hours if we need to. There’s also a group that includes people from those units that meets monthly, if necessary, to discuss incidents.”
The campus police have a Crisis Intervention Team, staffed by seven officers who have undergone training in dealing with people who have mental illnesses or other conditions.
Early warning signs
The following signs and symptoms are offered only as an aid in identifying and referring students and adults who may need help. These are only general signs or symptoms and must be viewed within the context of a person’s life experience, environment and past. They should not be viewed out of the context of a person’s life or viewed as universal indicators that a person is in danger. No single warning sign can predict that a dangerous act will occur. However, it is always wise to check out or look into a person’s symptoms and get the proper help if needed.
- Social withdrawal
- Excessive feelings of isolation or rejection
- Being a victim of violence
- Feelings of being picked on and persecuted
- Low school interest and poor academic performance
- Expressions of violence in writings and drawings
- Uncontrolled anger
- History of discipline problems, violent or aggressive behavior
- Intolerance for differences, prejudicial attitudes
- Drug and alcohol use
- Affiliation with gangs that support antisocial values and behaviors
- Inappropriate access to possession of and use of firearms
- Serious threats of violence
- A plan to harm others or themselves (with a date, method, plan, time)
- Giving possessions away, making statements such as, “I won’t be needing these things anymore. I won’t need these things where I’m going.”
Short-term counseling and walk-in emergency psychological services for students, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. 610 E. John St., 333-3704
- Psychological Emergency Service
333-0041The Counseling Center and McKinley's Mental Health Department collaborate with the Champaign County Mental Health Center to provide students with Psychological Emergency Services. Services available 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, and focus on problems that need to be addressed immediately.
- Suicide Prevention Team
333-3704 or 333-2705 Call police emergency number if suicide is imminent: 9-911 from a campus phone.
Faculty/Staff Assistance Program
1011 W. University Ave.,
244-5312 or 244-7739 (24-hour crisis line)
Assessment, referral, short-term counseling and walk-in emergency services for faculty and staff.
Office of the Dean of Students
To reach emergency dean or to report acts of intolerance/hate crimes: 333-0050 (24 hours) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org,
1110 W. Springfield Ave
Emergency: 9-911 (campus phones), 911 (off campus)