Last Friday, about 70,0000 people poured into the streets of Austin warily looking at their cell phones. These students were reading instructions sent to them by the UT-Austin officials whose job it is to get students, faculty and staff away from threats and lead people to safety. Those 70,000 people were all relying on the directions sent to them, and the directions were misleading.
Those on campus were told by text message to get as far away from University buildings as possible. Many people did exactly that, leaving campus and following the instructions of helpful police officers who were stopping vehicle traffic so that pedestrians could cross MLK Boulevard. In a press conference shortly after the University was deemed safe, UT president William Powers Jr. stated that the intention was never to evacuate campus, only to evacuate the buildings.
“We did not plan to evacuate the campus,” said Bob Harkins, associate vice president for Campus Safety and Security. Harkins noted that the plan for evacuating people from University buildings involves moving all persons at least 300 feet away from those buildings. The problem is that the 300-foot radius around one building will inevitably overlap with the 300-foot radius of another building. Police officers on MLK Boulevard guided people away from the evacuation radius of all buildings. Not knowing these details, however, is what confused many people.
Contributing to the lack of clarity on that rainy day was the poor grammar found in these messages. On the surface, grammar could be considered a very low priority in emergency situations; however someone who is reading “Evacuations due to threats on campus immediately. Evacuate …” may have a different reaction than someone else who sees it as “Evacuations due to threats on campus. Immediately evacuate …” The first sentence implies that there is an immediate threat to campus and to evacuate. This idea that there is an immediate threat can lead to a very frantic evacuation. The second sentence implies that there are threats on campus and evacuations need to be done immediately. The lack of a comma or period can make all the difference.
There were also glaring misspellings, the most obvious being “retenter” and the incorrect use of “past” rather than “passed”. Trying to decipher these words may have made for a good chuckle that day, but it is no laughing matter when people who go online for updates on our University’s safety see these mistakes. Dr. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts, said that this is not a reflection of UT, just the person who wrote the message. “Why not have something prepared?” offered Hinojosa-Smith, who suggested that a template be created for these kinds of emergencies in case they happen again.
According to Harkins, there are 15 templates available for emergency text and email correspondence. The problem arises when these templates don’t fit the situation, and information must be transposed without a construct. Another problem with the templates is that once you fill in pertinent information, they will often go far beyond one or even two text messages since all text messages have a 160-character limit.
Other universities seem to be able to use their spell check just fine. Email messages sent to students of North Dakota State University show concise wording and relevant information despite a stressful situation.
What makes all the criticism of UT’s response to the bomb threat so unsettling is that it all could have been avoided if UT had responded to this incident in the way it has responded in the past. When the PCL shooting happened in 2010, students were kept up to date with a string of concise, informative text messages and emails. UT was lauded for its quick action and emergency text response system. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo was quoted at the time as saying, “It became readily apparent that the University of Texas was prepared for this situation.”
So what happened between then and now?
“We needed more follow-up,“ Harkins said, remarking that during the PCL shooting incident there was a seemingly constant stream of updates across all mediums of communication, including social media. “There are places where we can do better,“ Harkins said. Overall though, he said, “things went pretty well.“
It is true that things could have been worse. Virginia Tech has only recently begun to resolve several lawsuits regarding its sloppy performance during the shooting that took place there in 2007. The campus did not release an alert until two hours after the first shots were fired. Ultimately, it is the students and faculty that are to be praised for their calm and organized exodus from campus.
“We’re very proud of students’ reactions,“ Harkins said. “Thank you for what you did. Internally, we are working to get better.”