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June 16, 2016

Rutgers students freak out over misleading alert in active shooter test

Wording of emergency text creates confusion on New Brunswick campus

Public Safety Tests
061616_RutgersLibrary Source/Rutgers University

Alexander Library at Rutgers University – New Brunswick.

In an age when mass shootings have become a frequent occurrence in the United States, it's the job of emergency management officials to develop and test strategies that realistically simulate the circumstances of an active shooter situation.

This is particularly true at schools, colleges and universities, where there have been dozens of incidents, many involving fatalities, in the past five years alone.

On Thursday, in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub massacre, public safety officials at Rutgers University – New Brunswick decided to run a test of their active shooter alert system. 

Without fair warning, many students momentarily freaked out when they scanned the wording of the text blasted out by university police:

"RU ALERT: Armed suspect in the area of alexander library. Seek a safe space and shield/secure your location. TEST TEST 06/16/2016 09:42:39 EDT."

With the "TEST TEST" placed at the end of the text, it's easy to imagine reading this and instantly believing there is an actual imminent threat. 

In response to the incident, which lasted about 16 minutes between three spaced text alerts, university officials issued the following statement: 

Earlier today an Emergency Notification message was sent by text message to members of the Rutgers University – New Brunswick Community.  This message was part of a planned Emergency Management Exercise and there is no threat to the Rutgers University - New Brunswick.  We recognize that the wording of the initial message caused some concern and alarm amongst recipients; however the message was sent only to test the University’s Emergency Notification System (ENS).  University Public Safety will be making necessary changes to protocols for future training exercises. 

Universities across the United States are increasingly conducting active shooting simulations and holding workshops to prepare students and faculty for an unforeseen nightmare scenario. The goal of these exercises is in part to convert students from "passive observers" into teams that coordinate to survive, take cover and even take out the shooter when there is no escape (in June 2014, students at Seattle Pacific University pepper-sprayed and tackled a 26-year-old shooter, potentially saving countless lives). 

Related Article: Here's how Pennsylvania senators want to combat gun violence

A 2014 report from the Police Executive Research Forum analyzed 84 shootings from 2000-2010 and found that in "case after case," individuals who stood still or played dead were most likely to be attacked. The report offers insights and tips for protection based on police data from responses to dozens of active shooter emergencies. 

On Thursday, Rutgers experienced firsthand the panic that ensues when word of an active shooter spreads across a campus community, even when it's a false alarm. Kenneth Cop, executive director of public safety at Rutgers, suggested the university will continue to refine its test and response methods.

"Each year, University Public Safety collaborates with various departments at Rutgers University - New Brunswick to conduct emergency response exercises, such as table top exercises, field exercises, and tests of the emergency notification system."