All Hands on Deck
Shooter at Illinois university prompts school to further upgrade mass notification system
- By Lisa Weller
- May 01, 2009
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
"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."
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
"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
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
Further analysis shows why NIU's reaction
to the shooting was appropriate and
"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.