One of the usual aftermaths of public emergencies is to bemoan what went wrong in communications, make pronouncements about addressing the problems and then watch as nothing happens. The pattern then repeats itself after the next catastrophe.
That isn't true, however, in the case of the shooting Tuesday at the University of Texas at Austin in which a student with an AK-47 rifle fired several shots and then killed himself. Apparently, the educational community learned the lessons of Virginia Tech and Columbine and harnessed emerging technologies to improve communications.
Various reports say that the text alert system worked well. A report at the website of television station KENS 5 said that people in the locked-down buildings sent pictures of police activities. The story said the first official text alert was issued at 8:19 a.m., only seven minutes after the initial 911 call was received. At 8:30, a Facebook update was issued and Twitter, e-mail and text updates were issued on an ongoing basis.
The Statesman had good color from folks affected by the incident. The story said that a post mortem will follow:
An after-action review will examine what went right and what could be improved in terms of notification, emergency response and general preparedness for a crisis on campus, but the early reviews by university officials, campus and city police, city leaders and others were positive.
Perhaps one issue that will be discussed is that an off-campus student who received two text messages before leaving for school came anyway "because the messages didn't say I wasn't supposed to." In retrospect, it seems obvious to not go to a place where a gunman potentially is on the loose, but in the confused situation, it would make sense to spell that point out with a simple message such as: "Emergency on campus. If you are not here, stay away until further notice."
NewsOK uses the UT shooting as a jumping-off point to describe the alert status at colleges and universities in Oklahoma. The piece says that the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and other schools have phone, e-mail and/or text systems in place for emergency notifications. The story describes the emergency section of OSU's website.
The good news from the incident is that no bystanders were killed or injured, though it is a shame that the troubled young man couldn't be saved. Universities and school districts, as well as businesses, medical facilities and other campus-based organizations should continue studying how to use emerging technology. It is an ongoing effort, of course, since the technology changes so rapidly.
Planners also should research ways to keep social media from leading to panic. In this case, the incident was self-contained and over quickly. In an ongoing crisis, it is important to control Facebook, Twitter and other immediate communications channels to the greatest extent possible.