Today's hunt for an armed robber in Troy and subsequent lockdown at RPI seemed to stir up a lot people. There was the obvious (and understandable) "Yikes!" reaction to the thought of an armed suspect running through the neighborhood near campus -- but there also seemed to be a bit of confusion and frustration with the way information about the situation was communicated.
Thankfully, no one got hurt. And maybe there are some good things that can come out of all this for the next situation.
There seemed to be some frustration from Troy officials about RPI's use of its loudspeaker campus alert system (the Troy Record has video that includes the audio message) that warned that an "armed and dangerous person is on campus." The message apparently could be heard well off campus, too, which prompted this tweet from mayor Harry Tuntunjian this morning:
There will be some discussion with RPI about frequency,volume and content of their alert system message.
He added in his next tweet:
No shots were fired. No confirmed sighting on campus. City did not declare campus emergency. Many calls from citizens about alert message
A captain for the Troy Police Department told WNYT that the TPD asked the school to turn off the system because it was causing panic.
The mayor's reaction to the alert in turn prompted reactions from other people. A sample:
From @ndkelly29: "@TroyMayor As a resident of downtown Troy, I have to say I appreciated the RPIAlert system and its messages."
From @Jewels0818: "@TroyMayor I'm a resident of Troy and I am glad I heard the alarm and jumped on twitter to see what was going on."
From @velocirobter: "@TroyMayor you should let the schools where shootings have happened know not to overreact. #fail #bettersafethansorry"
As Kevin Marshall wrote this afternoon (he was on campus during the lockdown), after incidents like the one at Virginia Tech it's hard to fault a school for doing what it can to get the word out about a potential danger on campus:
It's truly unfortunate that some people were inconvenienced by the volume of the alarm. But RPI has the problem of being a large campus integrated with a surrounding residential community. These sort of precautions are going to have their drawbacks regardless of how much thought and time is put into preparing. You never know how things work, and when it's necessary, until you actually use it.
The director of RPI's news department commented on Kevin's post: "The safety of students, faculty and staff here is a top priority, and we acted accordingly this morning."
What's actually happening?
There also seemed to be some frustration as people tried to figure out what exactly was happening today, as information circulated and was later corrected. The RPI loudspeaker was saying one thing. The mayor was tweeting something different. People reported on Twitter that the loudspeaker message was hard to hear in buildings. And there was confusion about when the lockdown actually ended.
For next time
OK, so maybe there are a few things that could help for next time -- whether it's at RPI or one of the Capital Region's other campuses:
Troy officials and RPI have got to be on the same page in a situation like this. The Record's Dave Canfield reported that city officials didn't know that the school was going to be issuing alerts. And WNYT reported that Troy police were telling people the lockdown was over when it wasn't. A quick phone call or text message between leaders probably could have kept everyone on the same page.
RPI should get credit for having an alert system that notifies students via web, email, RSS and text. But being on Facebook and Twitter would also help -- because when people heard something was wrong, that's where they turned. A presence in those online communities would also help knock down rumors, misinformation and fakes.
The same message, at the same time
Having all those platforms is great -- as long as they're coordinated. It appeared today that the messages coming from the RPI alert system and the loudspeaker weren't in sync all the time. There has to be a way to push the same message across all the platforms at the same time.
Mind the medium
Not to go all McLuhan here, but both the message and the medium matter. Information distributed via a booming, ominous-sounding loudspeaker is going to be interpreted differently than if it arrives in an email. Likewise, Twitter might not be the best place for an elected official to raise questions about the response to an emergency.
Welcome the neighbors
Most of the Capital Region's college campuses are right in the middle of neighborhoods. Whatever happens on campus affects the surrounding neighborhood and vice versa. Colleges should welcome neighbors to connect to their public safety and information systems. Let neighbors subscribe to alerts. Set up a way for them to send in tips. Sure, there's probably always going to be friction, but there's no reason the campuses and their neighborhoods can't also help each other.
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.