Va. Tech’s quick alerts to shootings in contrast to 2007

December 9, 2011

By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY

Official warning of deadly shootings on the Virginia Tech campus Thursday was far swifter than the flat-footed response the school was accused of after a shooting rampage that left 33 people dead in 2007.

Students and parents Thursday reported receiving detailed e-mails and text messages within minutes on their computers and cellphones describing the incident, the gunman, the victim and what they should do to stay safe. In 2007, two hours passed before the first message was broadcast — a vague description of “a shooting incident” and no mention of deaths.

The university’s danger warning was much better this time around, said Frederick Cook, 26, who was in the class of Holocaust survivor Professor Liviu Librescu when an armed Seung Hui Cho tried to enter the classroom.

“I do not know what else the university would be asked to do,” Cook said. “There are not a lot of alerts, but the ones that are out are meaningful,” and they were posted on the website and Twitter page, he said. “The fact that they got the word out within minutes, that’s the main thing.”

Blacksburg, Va.

The first calls reporting the shooting came into dispatch at around 12:30 p.m., said university spokesman Larry Hincker. At 12:36, dispatch issued its first of six alerts while the campus was on lockdown, which went out by text messages, e-mail, the university’s website and Twitter, and its public address system, which broadcast the alert campus-wide.

It reported “gun shots reported … Stay inside. Secure doors.” The next, 10 minutes later, provided a detailed description of the suspect — “gray sweat pants, gray hat w/neon green brim, maroon hoodie and backpack” — and 25 minutes later the school sent news that a police officer has been shot and of a potential second victim.

Charles Steger, the university president, said he was pleased with the speed of the alerts. The technology to broadcast alerts in several different ways did not exist in 2007. “It all worked,” he said.

Virginia Tech sophomore Abby Lorenz, 19, who lives off campus, said the alerts made her feel safe.

“We all knew immediately after it happened not to go to campus,” Lorenz said. “All of my roommates and I got texts and e-mails, and they’ve sent us multiple updates.”

Moments before the shooting was reported Thursday, Virginia Tech officials were testifying in a Washington courtroom about their response to the 2007 incident. The school is contesting a $55,000 fine issued by the Department of Education, which says Virginia Tech violated the Clery Act, which requires schools to issue timely warnings for public safety.

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