Our alert systems failed the test

At 11:15 p.m. on Monday, April 10, Pittsburgh police responded to a report of shots fired at the Hillman Library, in an unsettling parallel to the March 29 hoax reporting of shots fired at Central Catholic High School. After conducting a search of the building, it was determined that there was no active shooter situation and students were soon permitted to retrieve personal belongings. However, the University of Pittsburgh has drawn criticism for failing to use their emergency system to notify students of the incident in a timely manner. Instead of receiving official information from the university, students were left to piece together events from cell phone footage of police carrying their weapons through the library and testimonial from their peers, many of whom claimed to hear a shot in the building (as it turns out, a police officer did in fact discharge their weapon to open a door to access another section of the building).

The lack of clear and timely messaging from Pitt is concerningly similar to the failure of Carnegie Mellon to clearly notify students of the events that were unfolding at Central Catholic. The fact that these two events happened in such quick succession highlights much more clearly the flaws in these systems. Clear dissemination of information is critical to prevent unnecessary panic and confusion. While it's understandable that a university would not want to risk causing alarm by declaring an emergency before finding proof of the threat (especially since panic can also be extremely dangerous), people inevitably use word-of-mouth and social media to learn about events.

During the hoax incident at Central Catholic, an unverified twitter account named "Real News and Alerts Allegheny County" was the first source to report on the shooting that, at the time, was not yet known to be a hoax. At 10:24 a.m., fewer than 10 minutes after the first cop car arrived at Central, they tweeted that a 911 caller had reported "6 people shot inside Central Catholic H.S." This account was most likely acting on the only information available at the time, since it seems that it wasn't clear to anybody whether the threat was genuine at the time. However, Carnegie Mellon students did not receive an emergency alert for another 15 minutes (which did not even contain instructions to shelter-in-place), at which point many had already learned about the situation from other sources. The tweet from "Real News and Alerts" was spread widely and rapidly, along with low-quality photos showing gurneys on the sidewalk outside Central Catholic, leading many to believe that a shooting was truly taking place.

The contents of the emergency message only said that there was a "large police presence" at Central Catholic. It should be recognized that this was a good decision on the part of the university, as it would have been irresponsible to report on a shooting before there was any evidence of such. However, the university failed to use the emergency alert system to call for a shelter-in-place for students. The only students who received the shelter-in-place message on their phones were those with the Rave Guardian app, which is far from ubiquitous on campus.

Had there truly been an active shooter situation, sheltering in place would have been imperative for the safety of students and for law enforcement to take action without interference.

It is very important to establish clear channels of communication, and for unambiguous messages to be distributed universally in the event of an emergency. Both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon should review their protocol for distributing information and how they advise students to act in emergency situations. Since spree shootings are tragically common in this country, one of the best things that institutions can do to minimize the risk is ensure that people are informed and understand how to safely act in such situations. The two hoax reports of shootings served as real-life tests of our emergency alert systems, and it has become impossible to ignore that these systems would be woefully underequipped to respond in a real emergency.