On January 22, the University of Oklahoma’s official twitter feed transmitted the following message:
Soon after, the shooting was flashed as Breaking News on all the cable news outlets (television and websites).
The sprawling campus immediately went into lockdown mode. Over the next several hours, additional twitter updates provided seemingly relevant information.
All university operations and classes eventually returned to normal after the true
cause was determined: machinery backfire from a nearby construction vehicle.
When assessing this situation, I think it’s fair to note that a student was shot and
killed a day earlier on the campus of Purdue University. Purdue University is located in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Fortunately, what resulted from the University of Oklahoma incident was only campus-wide anxiety and inconvenience. No injuries were reported. So it would appear that this case of the mistaken emergency alert will likely end up in the virtual dustbin of “texty tweets.” No harm done.
Allow me to offer an alternative perspective.
During an October 1, 2005 football game at Oklahoma University’s Memorial Stadium, a crowd of 84,501 was enjoying the 2nd quarter when fans heard a “loud rumble” in close proximity to the stadium. No official explanation was given as to the source of the noise, but fans claimed it sounded similar to a “low-clap” of thunder.
During the intermission, fans were not allowed to exit the stadium. Many fans remained “anxiously unaware” throughout the remainder of the game. When the game ended, the public address system was used to convey information regarding closed-off exits and alternate modes of egress.
What spectators actually heard during the 2nd quarter was an individual who blew himself up with TATP (triacetone triperoxide) less than 200 yards from the stadium. That is correct. The bomber, identified as OU student Joel Henrichs III, was immediately killed in the explosion. The FBI and local authorities launched an extensive investigation and determined it to be an isolated incident with no ties to terrorism.
Although initially reported by national media outlets, the story was quickly withdrawn from the mainstream news. Considering the magnitude of a person blowing themselves up outside one of the largest entertainment venues in the midwest, this raises a series of other questions. But I’d prefer to focus on the issue at hand.
Have University of Oklahoma officials been properly briefed on the potential consequences of sending out an “accidentally false” emergency notification? What if their Twitter feed was hacked or intentionally misused? Even if the information was factually correct, are they aware it could trigger a mass panic resulting in an artificially generated stampede? The 2005 self-detonation in Norman, Oklahoma occurred well before Twitter became socially relevant in 2007. Do current models governing emergency alert systems accurately reflect the changes in social media and technological advancements made in the past decade? Are the Department of Education and Federal Communications Commission on top of this? What about the Department of Homeland Security?
The Department of Education has been woefully inadequate in addressing this area of concern. It’s largely due to the sensitive nature of emergency evacuation protocol and difficulty in coping with the other issues that would naturally surface as a result. This matter clearly falls under the guise of the 1990 Clery Act which governs the timely, public notification of criminal activity on campus. And it should be addressed by the NCAA Executive Committee as well. But you cannot address any of the sub-issues without a broader acknowledgement. Because when it’s all said and done, it’s a civil rights issue.
People have a fundamental right to know that if they’re in a large, confined crowd and receive an evacuation order and/or panic-inducing information from their cell phone or mobile device… it’s almost certainly a hoax designed to create an artificially generated stampede.
You simply cannot micromanage this degree of awareness. Not only is it exceedingly relevant, it’s the truth. Plain and simple. I’ll even concede that pertinent follow-up information could be delivered via cellular platforms. But only AFTER an initial evacuation order is delivered in a unified, coherent fashion (through the public address system, and perhaps if available, the jumbotron). It’s not as complicated as it sounds. It’s just a matter of current emergency evacuation protocol norms.
I notified OU President David Boren of this matter in multiple 2012 letters and an email sent in 2013. On all three occasions, he neglected to respond.
The University of Oklahoma has an enrollment of just over 30,000 students. Official capacity for Memorial Stadium is listed at 82,112. The largest crowd ever exceeded 86,000 in a 2012 contest against Notre Dame.
Much to it’s credit, the University of Oklahoma staged an emergency drill at Memorial Stadium in 2007. More than 500 students and emergency responders participated in a stadium evacuation resulting from a simulated gas line rupture. At the time, it was the first ever drill of its kind in NCAA Division I history.
While I see nothing wrong with performing risk assessment and threat analysis, I would submit the following. There’s a big difference between a meticulously coordinated drill involving less than 1,000 cognizant participants AND a real-time, real-world unplanned scenario with 80x that number.