Some question use of IU?s emergency message system

  • Oct. 29, 2013

By Jon Blau

Like everyone else who is on IU Notify’s listserv, Debbi Fletcher heard her phone ring at about 4 a.m. Sunday.

Fletcher, director of emergency management at Indiana University, heard the same message more than 60,000 others did: There was an “armed individual” at large on Bloomington’s campus. The notification system didn’t know Fletcher was in Florida at the time.

The day after the incident -- which resulted in the arrest of two students after the slashing of another with a meat cleaver.   Fletcher’s office has received questions about who gets the emails, --phone calls and text messages from IU’s emergency notification system.

Some people complained about the number of messages, because they don’t live anywhere near Tulip Tree Apartments, where the incident occurred. Others didn’t feel the updates were frequent enough, coming about every hour or so, because it was a Sunday and before dawn. That didn’t stop people from worrying while they waited for updates.

“We are very careful about not sending messages unless we have to,” Fletcher said. “If we do, it’s because there are actions we want you to do that can keep you safe.”

IU Notify reaches about 66,000 people, Fletcher said, with about half of those signed up for text-message alerts. Participants in the notification system need to specifically authorize text messages, or they will get just an email and a phone call.

Putting out word about crimes as they occur is a tricky balance for IU. Most students advised to stay put and lock their doors were already doing so at 4 a.m. Sunday. For people who weren’t in Bloomington, the automated phone call from IU Notify wrested them from their sleep for no reason. But IU wants to keep people informed when there is possible danger.

The first message sent through IU Notify alerted emergency management staff to the incident, because it was sent out via police dispatch. It comes from a template the dispatch has ready-made, Fletcher said; this one specifies an “armed individual” and tells recipients to “shelter in place.”

When police conducted their investigation and found out the kind of weapon used, the messages changed to specifically mention a knife, which turned out to be a cleaver.

The initial weapon description was vague, but Fletcher said it’s better to put out a message that causes more people to take the warning seriously and then pull it back.

It didn’t help that CNN and other news outlets saw the initial notifications of an “armed individual” and took that to mean a “gunman” was on campus.

In the future, Fletcher said, the university hopes to find technology that will send alerts only to people in affected areas, rather than a mass distribution list.

“I feel bad,” Fletcher said. “I know. I was in Florida. But safety trumps everything else.”

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.