Public safety officials on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus have an enormous responsibility when it comes to informing people about emergencies. Getting out tens of thousands of emails and text messages when there may be only seconds to spare is no small task.
Early Saturday morning, police issued a series of Illini-Alerts after a shooting was reported at an apartment near campus in the 800 block of South Locust Street, Champaign. A large group of people had gathered to celebrate a high school graduation. One person was hurt in the shooting and was treated for non-life threatening injuries.
Despite scouring the area for the suspect, police could not find the shooter, who is believed to have quickly fled from the area.
On Saturday evening, police issued an Illini-Alert describing a hazardous materials release at the Materials Research Lab, 104 S. Goodwin Ave., Urbana. Only later would public safety officials determine the chemical release was isolated to one room within the building.
After an active weekend for Illini-Alert messaging, Lt. Todd Short explains the factors in deciding when and how to issue an Illini-Alert, and what it means for campus.
When is an Illini-Alert issued?
Lt. Short: Any time we get a report of an incident that may pose a risk to the immediate health or safety of the campus community, we will issue an Illini-Alert. These are emergency incidents, like significant fires, weather emergencies, shootings or any number of things where we need people to take immediate personal protective actions to ensure their own safety. They can occur anywhere at any time, and we make that decision on a case-by-case basis when the emergency is happening.
But what if it turns out to be nothing?
Lt. Short: We always hope it turns out to be nothing, but we know that isn’t always the case. Public safety is always our No. 1 concern. We will always lean toward issuing an Illini-Alert so people can take whatever appropriate actions are necessary at the time. Remember that these events are developing over a matter of minutes or seconds, and we do our very best to confirm the dangerous situation before we send an Illini-Alert.
Take Saturday’s report of a hazardous materials release, for instance. That was reported to us as an explosion that resulted in a hazardous materials release inside the building. The chemical that was reportedly released was iodine, which could be fatal if inhaled.
It wasn’t until firefighters were on scene that they were able to determine the risk to the general public. While we do not want to make our campus population anxious, we have an obligation to inform our constituency of a developing emergency situation. We’re happy to tell people a few minutes later that it’s no big deal. We would much rather err on the side of caution and be second-guessed on why we sent an alert instead of being second-guessed on why we didn’t.
What kind of information is included in the alert?
Lt. Short: We include whatever information we think is important for people to know to take the appropriate personal protective actions. Again, it is important for people to realize these things develop over a matter of seconds or minutes, so we don’t always have all the information immediately.
With the shooting on Saturday, we were able to include a description of the offender because that’s something we were told on scene. However, with the hazmat release, we didn’t know how many chemicals had been released and how wide of an area was affected.
Because these messages are going out over a number of platforms, we also have a limit on how much information we can include. We need to keep our messages brief so that we can provide clear instructions for those affected by the emergency. It’s not always easy to fit all that information into a single text message.
What we always try to do is update people as we receive more accurate information. We were able to do that with the shooting early Saturday morning when we were certain the offender had left the area, and we were able to do that with the hazardous materials release when we determined the scope of the incident. We’re always going to err on the side of caution, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.