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Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don't Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.
(Photo: thompsonrivers/Flickr)

(Photo: thompsonrivers/Flickr)

Text and email-based campus emergency alert systems seem like a great idea, and in the worst circumstances they might help save lives. But a new experiment suggests a serious downside: If administrators aren’t careful, students, faculty, and staff might think they’re crying wolf.

Sending countless alerts about every misplaced backpack or suspicious character “is a huge issue. If people don’t like the system, they’re not going to trust it,” says Daphne Kopel, lead author of a new study on students’ perceptions of emergency alert systems and a graduate student at the University of Central Florida. “Overexposure can really do harm.”

"We were getting so many alerts ... people were kind of laughing about it."

Technically, the Department of Education has required alert systems since 1990’s Clery Act, but those systems came into sharper focus—and under tighter scrutiny—after a mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007. Amendments to the Clery Act in 2008 led some schools to develop elaborate warning systems, complete with text alerts, remote-controlled locks, and more.

But that technology won’t make a difference if no one takes it seriously, an issue that first occurred to Kopel when thinking about her response to a fire in her building, she says. Kopel set to work on a survey of University of Central Florida students’ attitudes toward their schools’ alert system—“we were getting so many alerts ... people were kind of laughing about it”—when fears a serious attack might be underway shut the campus down.

In the wake of the attack, Kopel worked with Valerie Sims and Matthew Chin to probe students’ thoughts about their alert system and how the planned attack had changed them. Surveying 148 UCF students, the team found modest but nonetheless important changes. Students agreed they liked the alert system a bit more after the attack compared with before, and they were less likely to feel like UCF was a safe campus than they had beforehand. Tellingly, survey takers were 15 percent less likely to report hearing others openly mock the alert system, suggesting that students took the system more seriously after the interrupted attack. Perceptions also varied based on gender—the alert system made women feel safer than it did men, for example—as well as personality traits such as agreeableness and imagination.

Kopel says the team is planning follow-up surveys at the beginning and end of each semester. That should address one drawback of the study—students’ recollections of how they felt months ago or prior to an emergency aren’t the most reliable—as well as provide feedback to administrators. Those surveys will also help with Kopel’s broader goal of understanding how students and others categorize and respond to different kinds of emergencies.

The team will present their research later this month at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Annual Meeting in Chicago.