After police responded to the report of a suspicious and potentially armed man last Wednesday at the College of Arts and Sciences, Boston University students said they were stunned to learn that BU lacks a lockdown policy aside from the BU Emergency Alert Service for emergency situations.
BU uses Send Word Now, a technology that sends voice and text messages to students’ and faculty’s cell phones, as its lockdown policy, BU Police Department spokesman Sgt. Jack St. Hilaire said.
After a student gunman killed 32 people and wounded 25 others at Virginia Tech in April 2007, BU expanded the alert system to notify students and faculty of emergency situations, rather than just faculty, he said.
‘We don’t have a lockdown policy,’ St. Hilaire said. ‘That’s what we use the BU Alert system for. It’s the best way to get the word out. We could tell you to evacuate the building, or stay in classrooms and lock the door.’
BUPD receives occasional calls reporting suspicious acts involving guns, but rarely sends out alerts to students and faculty because every situation is ‘unique’ and ‘dynamic’ and doesn’t always endanger personal safety, St. Hilaire said.
‘The BU Alert system is used to inform and protect the community,’ he said. ‘That’s its main function, to give you warning and information that involves your personal safety.’
BU sent limited information to students and faculty on Wednesday not only to avoid panic, but also to avoid slowing down the alert system, St. Hilaire said.
‘You don’t want to bog down the system with too much information,’ he said. ‘That was just to let them know there was police activity.’
Other schools are envious of BU’s accessible resources, including SWN messaging and Boston’s numerous police departments, St. Hilaire said.
‘We are fortunate in the agencies we have at BU – BU police, Boston police, Massachusetts police, Cambridge police, Brookline police,’ he said. ‘There are at least several agencies that are going to respond [to emergencies].’
Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a similar emergency alert system, MIT Police Department Captain David Carlson said.
‘There’s a notification to your cell phone, office phone and text message,’ Carlson said.
Although the alert system could be improved, budget cuts could get in the way of upgrades, Carlson said.
‘There’s always room for improvement, absolutely,’ Carlson said. ‘Unfortunately, improvements in this day and age cost money, so you’re trying to balance fiscal budget with security and other considerations.’
Providing students and faculty with vague information on Wednesday helpfully dampened students’ reactions, CAS senior Ryan Cross said.
‘If they provided full information, it would lead to a panicked situation,’ Cross said. ‘What response would you get to a text message saying, ‘There’s a shooter in CAS’?’
CAS senior Jake Campbell said he turned his cell phone off during class and did not receive word of the situation until an hour after messages were sent.
‘My main problem with it is it just said ‘705 Commonwealth Avenue,’ and I didn’t know what that was,’ Campbell said. ‘I knew it was in that general block [of CAS], but I didn’t know if it was CAS or Warren or the School of Theology.’
Despite its flaws, the Send Word Now system is the best that BU can do, Campbell said.
‘It’s the most ideal system you can have, I suppose,’ said Campbell. ‘What else are they really going to do?” ‘
St. Hilaire said although it is impossible to guarantee complete safety at all times, BU’s resources are better than a lot of other locations.
‘Nothing is foolproof, but it’s the best system out there right now, the best that’s available to us,’ he said.