Of loudspeakers and tweets

twitter birdToday'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.

The loudspeaker

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:

Coordination
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.

Message everywhere
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.

Comments

I'd love to say they should do away with the loudspeaker, but having been here, I can't.

Here's the thing: it's nice to assume that absolutely everyone goes to the internet and other similar means of communication. But that's not the case. For example: my building had to have somebody posted at every door. Even two hours into the lockdown, with the loudspeaker booming that the school was under lockdown because of an armed gunman, you still had a good number of students walking around the campus and trying to get into the building. And no, it most definitely wasn't due to a language barriers.

You can't just protect the ones that have enough common sense to opt in to the RPIAlert system and/or are socially connected enough to use other resources to gather their information. Particularly when lives are potentially on the line.

Great post, guys. It was well thought out and some excellent points were made.

I work in downtown Troy and we heard the RPI siren but not the messages. Our office was in lockdown for a while as well (which for us simply means locking all the doors; movement wasn't restricted because you have to leave the office to use the restroom) and we found that AOA, Twitter, the Troy Record and Times Union were all useful in keeping abreast of the situation.

I agree, Kevin.

I live right by RPI, and was thankful blast and announcements. Frankly, the media was so slow to react it was our only source of info for quite a while. On once news station they were talking Twinkie milkshakes, and the other was baking salmon...pretty useless by comparison.

Seems to me anyone in our neighborhood complaining about the volume of the speaker probably failed to grasp the gravity of the situation, or the responsibility the RPI administration bear for the safety of their students. Post-Virginia Tech, better safe than sorry. (I know it's a completely different scenario, but an armed man is an armed man.)

But where was SAJ during all this? Was she moved to the Secure Undisclosed Location with Dick Cheney?

I thought the RPI Alert System was great!
I heard it from my office in Troy then checked Twitter / TU to see what was going on!

I fully agree, better safe than sorry!

It was totally crazy--the alarm sounded like a warning for a nuclear attack, and all I could hear of the message were the words "major" and "emergency." I don't know why this particular robbery incited such a powerful reaction.

I live in that part of Troy. My next-door neighbor, a professor at RPI, sent me the alert email. I'm thankful RPI has taken steps to help protect the students, faculty and staff. Yes, there should have been more coordination between RPI and the city, I think both parties should read the article above!

What I haven't seen mentioned yet is that the location of the robbery is across a small side street from School 18. What would city's reaction have been had school been in session today?

since the crime was at a check cashing store on Hoosick St., seems that the Empress Palpatine was putting on a show for the parents who fork over the bucks so she can keep spending. Got to keep the customers satisfied .....

As a parent of an RPI student, I am glad they have such a sophiscated system. It is better to be safe than sorry. For all those bashing RPI; if your son or daughter went there, how would feel if there was no alert system and something did happen on campus. It is nice to see RPI is taking care of our kids. Sorry, if our having big bucks offends some of the residents there.

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