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All Hands on Deck

Shooter at Illinois university prompts school to further upgrade mass notification system

In 2007, the entire nation was reeling from the devastation of the Virginia Tech University shootings. As a result, Northern Illinois University decided to apply lessons learned from Virginia Tech and re-examine and fine-tune its own emergency plan.

Officials hoped to be prepared but never to have to execute the plan for a similar event. Unfortunately, NIU's emergency plan was put to the test on Feb. 14, 2008, as the result of a campus shooting.

A Tragic Real-World Test

The shooter had previously attended classes at NIU. A history of mental illness may have brought him to Cole Hall, where he opened fire, killing five students and injuring more than 20. He also shot himself and died at the scene.

As the emergency unfolded, NIU replaced its normal Web site homepage with an all-crisis news page, explaining the incident. The site disseminated an e-mail message notifying the campus population that a shooting was underway. In addition, public safety officials arrived on the scene within minutes.

Because of the emergency plan's warning messages, many students and faculty members locked themselves into rooms, turned the lights off, closed the drapes and hid. Others stayed off campus or fled the area.

A major part of NIU's mass notification success was the all-crisis Web site format. Before the shooting, NIU had installed six dedicated servers to support the Web site. In the first 48 hours after the shooting, the NIU Web site received 14 million hits.

"If we did not have those servers, it would have crashed," said Melanie Magara, NIU's assistant vice president for public affairs. "We had people who learned in a timely manner what was happening on campus via our Web site."

NIU has been praised for its actions and reactions regarding the situation.

"I think a lot of universities are looking at what other technologies are out there and the ways to retrofit existing technology," Magara said. "Can there be a better use of existing fire alarms? In our case, the incident was over so quickly, there was no further danger after about two minutes."

Magara believes that if everyone in all buildings could have been alerted to the shooting, campus officials would have told people to stay where they were.

What's Next

In the months after the shooting, NIU considered various scenarios: What would have happened if there were multiple shooters, winding their way through campus? What if those shooters orchestrated assaults at timed intervals? School officials know the potential for disaster was far greater than what actually transpired.

Magara said the year after the shooting has included a close examination of what the school did, didn't do and should prepare for in terms of mass notification during future emergencies.

Questions are turning into solutions as NIU officials work toward further securing the campus. The school has received grants to help make the campus among the safest in the state, if not the country.

"There are shootings and other nightmares out there for which we need to be prepared," Magara said. "It needs to be a combination of technological and non-technological responses that tell people not just what's going on, but what to do. When we talk about emergencies, we discuss shootings, fires, tornados and explosives and what would be the best way to notify the campus population when something is happening."

System Consideration

That examination has included an evaluation of existing alert systems. All buildings have alarms, but not all have sprinklers. Many of the buildings are equipped with public address systems, which aren't in use but may be resurrected.

"We have a hodgepodge of alarms and other equipment," Magara said. "Some buildings have public address systems, but many don't."

Not only is NIU examining what's in place, but administrators also are considering how various elements can factor into mass notification for different types of emergencies. Some new systems have already been evaluated and activated.

"When the shooting occurred, we did not have a text messaging system," Magara said. "We now have one. We're also looking at other options, such as whether we should find ways to broadcast voice messages."

On any given weekday, there are as many as 23,000 people on campus. Some buildings were constructed around the turn of the 20th century, and as many as 12 have been built during the past 15 years.

Therefore, a building-specific emphasis is guiding NIU in its quest to improve security and mass notification on campus. NIU is looking at all of its buildings for emergency preparation and mass notification because of each structure's specialized purpose.

"We're looking at whether someone should be assigned to lock the doors or open the doors, given the type of building it is and its use," Magara said. "Does someone know where the disabled students may be in a given building who may need assistance with evacuation? If there's a shooter and a fire alarm goes off, do I know what that means? Is it nuanced in its operation so different signals mean different things?"

Special attention is being directed to the residence halls.

"All the residence halls include fire alarms, but their age and functionality vary widely," Magara said. "We've had unfunded mandates for sprinklers, and we're evaluating what we have as part of this process, too. We meet all codes, but we need to evaluate what we have in place that enables us to communicate non-verbally."

Fast Action

Further analysis shows why NIU's reaction to the shooting was appropriate and successful.

"On Feb. 14, we had a plan and we had practiced that plan," Magara said. "When I got word of a shooting, I had to make two quick phone calls. We had the authority to carry out that plan. There was no time to have a meeting. We needed to err on the side of giving people as much information as possible as quickly as possible, and it worked."

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Security Today.

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