BREAKING NEWS: There’s been an uptick in “active shooter” incidents on college campuses. That’s some scary stuff. But when it’s all said and done, public safety officials often discover that the whole thing was merely a false alarm. There’s no shooter. No shots fired. No firearm. No nothing. Maybe it was a vehicle backfiring. Maybe it was the misconstrued sounds of movie gunshots echoing throughout a dormitory hallway. In this case, on March 16, 2019, it was a sorority team building exercise on the University of Michigan campus which featured the errant popping of balloons. Several bystanders mistook the abrupt sounds for rapid gunfire. And that’s what triggered the alert. Well, you know what they say. Poppers gonna pop!
Active shooter alerts present a challenging dilemma. After all, nobody wants to electronically terrorize an entire student body. But when you reflect on the current state of gun violence and humanity at-large, most professionals would agree with the following sentiment — Hey, it’s a dangerous new world out there. We must be prepared for an absolute worst case scenario. Rest assured, we’re always better off safe… than sorry.
Let’s take a look at the timeline in reverse chronology.
U-M EMERGENCY ALERT
UM EAlert Ann Arbor Update
All Clear – 7:50 p.m. – Police have determined there is no threat to the community. Buildings are open. All clear.
Update 3 – 6:35 p.m. – There continues to be no indication of an active threat to the community. Police continue to investigate. Please stay away from Angell and Mason Halls.
Update 2 – 5:32 p.m. – There does not appear to be an active threat to the community. DPSS continues to investigate. Continue to stay clear of area.
Update 1 – 5:17 p.m. – Unconfirmed reports of an active shooter, officers are in the area checking. Stay away from the area of Mason Hall.
Original – 4:40 p.m. – UM EAlert Ann Arbor: Active shooter in Mason Hall. Run, hide, fight. www.dpss.umich.edu.
Note the initial push notification at 4:40 p.m. Commonly accepted advice for any active shooter alerts now contains the following suggestion. Run, hide, fight. This is the relatively new position of the United States Department of Homeland Security. It used to be “take shelter.” But in these days of indiscriminate murder and mass shootings, DHS has decided to get a little more specific regarding an explicit course of action.
The duration of the incident was 3 hours and 10 minutes. You know what else takes just over 3 hours? Yep, a college football game.
And just for the record, in the current technological world, an incident like this can “seemingly continue” well beyond the official “all clear” final order.
Michigan Stadium is the largest in the country. It’s affectionately referred to as the “Big House.” The official capacity is 107,601. However, it has hosted crowds in excess of 115,000.
This begs the obvious question. What happens if there really is an actual active shooter on campus DURING a college football game? What’s the protocol?
Would campus police utilize the U-M Emergency Alert system, as is required by law? What percentage of fans inside the stadium would receive such an alert? And would such an alert explicitly encourage people to “run, hide, fight?” Could a deliberate mass alert spark a crowd panic and an unintentional self-evacuation?
Now let’s pour some gasoline on this hypothetical fire. For I am absolutely certain of one thing. That if a stadium evac is deemed absolutely necessary, you would NEVER deliver the initial evacuation order via cell phone. Why? Well, the answer is spectacularly simple. You wouldn’t. You shouldn’t. And you couldn’t. Decades of established protocol, not to mention common sense, require usage of the public address system, preferably in tandem with the jumbotron/video monitors. Why? Because the overriding imperative is to present clear and concise, declarative instructions to as many people as possible, as efficiently as possible. Why? Because an unexpected stadium evacuation qualifies as a real-world emergency. It’s not the right time to try out new tactics or alternative strategies. Because you don’t get a practice session or a dress rehearsal. There’s no do-over.
Now I might not be an FBI Field Operations Investigator, but it doesn’t take a genius to draw a correlation between mass shootings and large crowds. And I might not be the leader of US Cyber Command, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the dangerous cellular disconnect in play. So here’s the deal. When you’ve got 100,000+ individuals with 100,000+ cell phones, that’s a lot of decentralized variables and individual OODA loops (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). From a public safety perspective, this is the recipe for an easily predictable disaster. An electronic, chaos bouillabaisse.
Perhaps I’m worrying needlessly. Maybe every single incident commander at every single NCAA football stadium is well aware of this specific wireless conundrum? Maybe DHS dispatched telecommunication experts to thoroughly brief them on this hypothetical possibility? But is the campus chief of police aware? The stadium employees? The coaches, the refs, the staff? The university president or chancellor? What about those who have the authority and/or capability to post information on the official university social media accounts (facebook, twitter, etc.)? Is everyone in the loop? Because that’s a heck of a lot of people.
How about the students and faculty, alumni and fans who regularly attend games in the stadium? Or at the arena, the field house, and so on?
How about the nearly 8 billion residents of planet earth?
If you take a realistic, objective look at this issue (with a long-term event horizon), I think it’s reasonable to conclude that this wireless disconnect and these related cyber-discrepancies will eventually be put to the test.
So rather than sit idly by, how about we just Get With The Program? Maybe enlighten the public and heighten everyone’s level of situational awareness in the realm of generic public safety. At an absolute bare minimum, how about we just volunteer the truth? That stadium evacuation orders are not delivered via your personal cell phone. See, how hard was that? Because if a scenario like that were to actually happen… you might physically find yourself in a situation where you’re actually running… you’re hiding… and you’re fighting. For your life. Just perhaps not in the conventional sense. Hint: stampede.
Even worse, it could all be for naught.
Hint: popped latex or rubber (not the good kind).