Emergency Communication after Virginia Tech: Legitimising Laws and Policies

The Virginia Tech shooting provoked a number of ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ communication measures being implemented in colleges and universities, and also led to changes in federal law. In the last blog, I documented the emergency communication problems highlighted by the Virginia Tech shooting: the delay in emailing the emergency alert to staff and students; the vague nature of the first alert sent out, coupled with it failing to really inject any urgency into the message; the inconsistency between the institutional emergency management plan and emergency communication policies about the parties with the relevant authority to issue emergency alerts. In the next two blogs, I intend to take this further by looking at changes to federal and state laws, Virginia Tech University itself and how this created a market for the emergence of a mobile phone safety application.

Analysing the need to ‘take action’ after the Virginia Tech shooting brings to mind the argument of Power about secondary risk management, where institutional responses are guided by “cultural demands for control, accountability and responsibility attribution.” The lawsuit which was filed against Virginia Tech University following the delay in communication highlighted the need for accountability and responsibility. Notably, the delay in communication on April 16th 2007 was said to violate the ‘Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act’ — commonly known as the ‘Clery Act’ — (1991) applying to all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs. The purpose of the law was for transparency around crimes occurring on colleges and universities, by keeping a public crime log, publishing an annual crime report and disclosing security policies. More specially relating to the Virginia Tech incident, the ‘Clery Act’ (1991) requires that higher education institutions provide ‘timely warnings’ in emergency situations posing a threat to students and staff. As it transpired, the federal-level ‘Clery Act’ (1991) was amended in 2008 to include changes to emergency communication: notification is now required to be immediate, unless to do so would impede efforts to resolve the situation somehow; notification methods are to be publicised to staff and students, plus tested and annually reported; the authority of campus law enforcement to issue emergency messages is to be clearly defined in institutional policies. In terms of measurable effects, research conducted by Campus Safety Magazine found that, a year after Virginia Tech, 73% of survey respondents had bought or intended to purchase mass emergency notification systems. A survey by Rasmussen and Johnson found that 75% of respondents intended to incorporate mobile phone technology in their systems after the Virginia Tech shooting, compared to the 5% who had it in place prior to the incident.

At the state-level, the Virginia bill ‘First warning and emergency notification system’ (2008) mandated that emergency notification for public institutions of higher education be ‘comprehensive prompt, and reliable,’ with various communication mechanisms and the appointment of authorised, trained individuals to activate systems. In the case of Virginia Tech University institutional policies, the recommendations and subsequent changes made appear to be ‘corrective action,’ where the university sought to repair its image by reporting plans to improve its emergency communication system. In terms of improving mobile phone signals in buildings on campus, service providers sent over technicians to improve tower capacity. Sirens were also installed at two additional locations throughout the campus. Most notably, at the time of the shooting, VTU was in the process of updating the notification system, but the event — and perhaps the accompanying controversy and lawsuits about the delay in emergency communication — meant the process was expedited and so ‘VT Phone Alerts’ was fully installed and configured by July 2007. This system allows for users to either opt-in or out of subscribing to the system. Those opting in choose three contact methods ranked in order of preference: text messages, instant messages, emails (including non-university addresses), phone calls to office/residence, phone call to mobile phones, and phone calls to elsewhere (e.g. parents’ numbers). At the time of August 2007, almost eleven thousand students, faculty and staff had subscribed to the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system. Further changes have been implemented since then. In 2008, digital signs linking with the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system were added to classrooms; the year of 2009 saw the introduction of the ‘VT Desktops Alerts’ system sending a message to laptops/computers connected to the internet, both on and off campus; the system was expanded to six regions in Virginia in 2010. The most recent notification system consists of contacting mobile phones, telephones and instant messaging supplements, other systems of emails, desktop alerts sirens/loudspeakers, hotline, website, electronic message boards. Under these circumstances, policies have a ‘legitimising’ function outlining the course of action needed to fix the problem, where the implementation of these gives authority to the decision-making body.

[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents and the institutional policies of Virginia Tech University, as well as other studies and academic scholars. It was first published in my doctoral thesis and will likely appear in future publications.]

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