Stanford continuously works to improve its emergency response systems in preparation for crises administrators hope never occur. Lisa Lapin, associate vice president for university communications, answers questions about how the campus intends to communicate with students and their families should an emergency occur on the Stanford campus.
How would students be alerted to emergency situations on campus?
Stanford has a warning system called AlertSU, which can send out alerts via mass emails, mass phone calls, text messages and, if necessary, campus-wide sirens. Police generally initiate the alerts. For more complex incidents or situations impacting the greater campus, Stanford University Communications will assume responsibility for communicating with our immediate community. We plan to use the web as a primary mode of frequent communication, in addition to social media. We run ourselves through timed drills so that we can practice posting messages through all of the channels available to us as quickly as possible.
How quickly can Stanford alert the university to an emergency?
Every situation will have a different timeline, but our intent is to use AlertSU as quickly as possible. By federal law—specifically the Clery Act—all colleges and universities must alert their campuses to imminent threats so people can take preventative measures. How fast an alert is issued would depend upon how quickly a problem is reported to campus police or other local agencies, the nature of the situation and how quickly the report can be reasonably substantiated. While we have all seen in recent weeks how quickly information is shared about crisis situations via media and social media, we will want to be sure we share both the most timely and most accurate information possible.
How would families learn more directly from Stanford about what is happening on campus?
Communicating with families during an emergency would be a high priority for Stanford. We would use emails and web updates and be proactive in sharing what we know as soon as we know it. Our most reliable method for sending information directly to parents at this point is through the same email distribution system we use for the Stanford Parents’ Newsletter. That said, we know that students and parents will be communicating directly and frequently, as well.
If there were a large-scale critical incident on campus, everyone, including parents, would be directed to the emergency.stanford.edu website, which is where we would post periodic updates. That’s where we would focus our initial communication efforts, and that’s where parents would learn the most up-to-date information.
What challenges do these kinds of emergencies pose, and how are you preparing for them?
First, it is very challenging to get accurate information quickly, given the heavy activity that emergencies entail. Our police will be focused on response and safety warnings first, detailed information second. Social media reports may be faster, but the information is not always accurate. It is possible that mobile and digital communication may be sporadic, or even fail, due to the sheer volume of information being transferred. The websites of some colleges and universities have actually crashed during emergencies because of the volume of traffic. In a major earthquake we could lose electricity, so we are taking steps to deploy backup web systems. Those are all challenges we continue to discuss.
We also know that parents may want to reach someone live to get information rather than glean it from a website. As a college parent myself, I can relate. But campuses that have experienced crises tell us that is a difficult expectation to accommodate in a large, fast-moving situation. Most likely, we would communicate personally first with parents of students who might be directly affected by an emergency. Then we would be better able to reassure other families that their students haven’t been affected.
We have been working with members of the Parents’ Program to learn more about how we can best share crisis information with families. We’re very appreciative of their helpful insights.
What happens if you lose the ability to communicate?
We hope that never happens, but it is a possibility and we are working to be prepared. For example, we have a reciprocal agreement with Duke University to host Stanford’s website until web access is restored. And we have relationships with off-site services to help us handle massive online interest. Stanford attracts global attention as a matter of our day-to-day business, and we already have among the highest volumes of website traffic of any university in the world. Should there be a crisis here, we expect that not just our campus community, but interested people around the world, will be coming to our website for information and updates, so we are preparing for that high volume.
Throughout Stanford, we take emergency preparation very seriously, working to think through every possible scenario, including the unthinkable, and adopting best practices from other institutions that have faced such challenges. Sadly, there has been much to learn from very recent experiences, ranging from how campuses coped with Storm Sandy to the most recent tragedies in Boston.