Looking forward: New security committees replace task force

By By Ryan Shelton and By Ryan Shelton

By Ryan Shelton

After the Virginia Tech massacre left 33 dead in April 2007, university administrators nationwide were asking themselves the same question: are we prepared for a large-scale emergency?

U President Michael Young was among that group of leaders, but he had more to consider than many of his peers outside of Utah because of the issue of concealed weapons on campus. The Utah Supreme Court ruled in 2006 to overturn the U’s gun ban, allowing people with concealed weapons permits to carry their firearms on campus.

In light of the recent school shootings and the heavily contested gun ban reversal, Young created an interim campus security task force in June 2007 to study ways to deal with potentially troubling student and faculty behavior, centralize response efforts and implement a campuswide emergency notification system.

“It’s a good start,” said Spencer Pearson, president of the Associated Students of the University of Utah and former task force member. “We’re definitely on the right track…We made our initial recommendations, and now the most important thing is for them to be implemented.”

The task force disbanded after making its recommendations to the administration in late 2007. In its place, the Emergency Advisory and Emergency Policy Committees were created to further study and implement the task force’s ideas. The committees are composed primarily of departmental vice presidents, faculty and campus operations staff.

But some students, who say that the administration is taking too long to outline and implement the new emergency plan, are lobbying for a text message alert system — a growing trend in American universities.

“There’s a general lack of awareness about safety precautions that have been made,” said Andrew Weathers, a junior in mass communication. “I think that more needs to be done, especially now that guns are allowed on campus.”

Weathers, who is enrolled in a crisis communication class, will take part in a class presentation today aimed at persuading Wayne McCormack, a former task force director and law professor, who is expected to attend, and other administrators to adopt a text message alert system.

In an interview earlier this month, McCormack told The Daily Utah Chronicle that the group studied the idea, but found that sending out mass text messages could potentially freeze the campus’s phone system. Now, McCormack said that the issue could be resolved by sending “pulses” of around 1,500 text messages every 10 seconds for a period of two to three minutes.

“It’s hard to judge the utility of the (text message) system because most emergency situations are over within a few minutes,” he said. “It would take at least a few minutes to gather the correct information and send it to the appropriate people.”

McCormack, who also chairs the U’s Emergency Advisory and Emergency Policy Committees, said the groups are close to deciding on an alert policy and that it will likely include a combination of e-mails and text messages. He also said that the committees are looking into installing a series of electronic notice boards around campus similar to the digital interstate signs that notify drivers of Amber Alerts and traffic updates.

McCormack said that some faculty might begin training over the summer, but that no implementation timeline has been established and that the committees will continue to study how to better prepare for emergencies into the Fall Semester.

Despite student frustrations, Young said that the committees have been making steady progress and that he believes the task force’s recommendations have “clearly” made the U a safer place.

“But the U has always been a safe place,” he said. “The statistics show that we have one of the safest urban campuses in the country. Campus shooting are really, pretty rare, but they get a lot of media attention because they’re so horrific.”

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