POSNER: For better crisis communication

Let’s set the scene: it’s Monday, Nov. 25, and my Thanksgiving break has already begun. I am walking out the door of my grandmother’s house, about an hour from New Haven, when my phone buzzes with the first of that day’s many Yale Alerts. Unconfirmed report of a gunman on campus. Shelter in place advised. Basically, the texts say, “We don’t know much, but we’ll keep you posted.” At this point, I’m not particularly worried. I’ve lived through middle-school lockdowns (armed bank robbery next door) and neighborhood quarantines (quasi-hostage crisis in a home down the block). An unconfirmed report of a gunman on campus? Not too concerning. I’m from the mean streets of Boca Raton.

But a bit more than an hour later, I get another text — and an email, and a voicemail — informing me that there is confirmation of a gunman. Cue the flood of worried Facebook statuses; it’s time for anxious texts to students starving in their Old Campus dorms. I start getting messages from friends out of state, ranging from the concerned “Are you on campus?” to the cynical “I warned you about New Haven.” Throughout the day, I’ll receive from the Yale Alert system a total of five emails, eight text messages and five phone calls. I’ll see pictures of Yale Police, of New Haven Police, of FBI and Homeland Security and SWAT officers scouring L-Dub entryways for a suspect. And through it all, I’m comforted: Yale, it seems, is really on top of things.

And yet, when I review the events of the day with a friend who spent the lockdown in Durfee Hall, he tells me his situation was a bit different: no text messages, no phone calls— mostly the muddled reports of rumors as told by friends off-campus, and the emails which he didn’t see until late in the day. He was about to head out the door as the shelter was in place, and only stopped when a friend’s urgent text informed him of the situation.

That’s likely his own fault— to get the text messages and calls, students must have entered their phone numbers on the Student Information Systems site— but it’s startling nonetheless. Because if students aren’t absolutely required to sign up for this kind of alert system, that leaves large gaps in the safety net that helps us manage crises like these. It’s tough to ensure communication with all students during a crisis, because outreach is so dependent on technology and the individual on the receiving end: there’s really no reliable way to confirm each student is updated on the situation. But the University can convey to students the critical importance of registering their cell phone numbers online at the beginning of the year.

Beyond ensuring that students are receiving emergency messages, the Yale Alerts themselves can be improved. The lockdown email was a bit unclear, especially for those of us who had never heard the term shelter in place: my own high school did not use that phrasing, even though we had dozens of “Code Red” drills. And Yale administrators had not facilitated any training on how to behave during a lockdown.

Even the language used made the Yale Alert instructions seem more like recommendations than strict requirements, kind of like the laughably polite fire alarms that ask if they can “have your attention please.” Sure, we might read that “Yale Police advises those on campus to remain in their current location,” but to a bunch of college students, still not over our adolescent sense of invincibility, that sounds pretty mild.

Though these concerns exist, and the response to the crisis (which we now know to have possibly been a hoax) wasn’t perfect, Yale’s security measures still impressed me considerably. University authorities stressed repeatedly their better-safe-than-sorry attitude: YPD chief and famous email-master Ronnell Higgins said the room search was conducted out of “an abundance of caution,” and University Vice President Linda Lorimer wrote that the police “took nothing for granted.” We’re lucky to have witnessed the school’s comprehensive emergency response system in action without seeing any actual injury, and we’ve been given an opportunity to make the necessary improvements on Yale’s already strong safety network.

Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at caroline.posner@yale.edu.

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