Tragedy is often an unforgiving teacher. In the university environment, it is the kind of lesson no one wants to learn.
But on April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech discovered the hard way that its mass communication system was inadequate. It took the university two hours to notify campus students, faculty and staff of the first murders, leading to the worst school shooting in history. It is a failure for which the university has faced much scrutiny.
However, since that tragic shooting, Virginia Tech has made an effort to ensure the safety of its community and to keep incidents of violence isolated by effectively locking down the campus. Unfortunately, a few incidents have tested the system, but none echoed the events of 2007 like the shooting that occurred on Dec. 8, 2011.
In that incident, Ross Truett Ashley, a 22-year-old student at nearby Radford University, shot and killed police officer Derek W. Crouse in a Virginia Tech parking lot. In another parking lot hours later, authorities identified the body of Ashley who had apparently shot himself.
“I first heard about it when I got a text at 12:39 p.m.,” said Connor Ring, a freshman at Virginia Tech. “The campus was on lockdown for about four hours, and luckily, I was already in my room, studying for finals. So I was watching TV and was updated by different news channels and getting periodic texts from VT Alerts. I also got emails, but I didn’t check it until after the whole thing was over.”
VT Alerts is a comprehensive approach to mass communication. Since, in the event of a crisis, time is critical, multiple built-in redundancies ensure the message is received as quickly as possible. First, the system posts notifications directly to the Virginia Tech homepage. The system also broadcasts emails to all vt.edu accounts and displays alerts on electronic message boards in classrooms. The system sends out automated voice calls through the weather/emergency hotline. There also is an audible alert on campus sirens and loudspeakers. Finally, the system sends alerts to desktop computers and text messages to phones of those who opt in for those services.
The effect was a university campus and community of 30,000 on complete lockdown within minutes.
“The shooting happened around 12:15 p.m., and the police were notified at around 12:30 p.m. I got the first VT Alerts text at 12:39 p.m., so I think that’s pretty fast to get a mass message out to all the students,” Ring said.
Following this shooting, Virginia Tech received near universal praise for how it handled the incident.
“I think it’s very important for a university to have a mass communication system,” Ring said. “I feel safe. I think they got the first alert out relatively fast, considering how many people they had to notify, so I’m confident that, if anything else ever happens, I’d be informed quickly.”