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WiscAlert: When and why does campus receive WiscAlerts?

The UW-Madison community is alerted about crimes in the area via messages from the UW-Madison Police Department.

Image By: Max Homstad

On Nov. 1, Jack Sirek’s lecture in Birge Hall was just ending when he received a text warning him of an unconfirmed situation: a report of a man with a gun in the Law Library, a building next-door to him.

His peers’ phones buzzed, whispers were exchanged. They stayed late in the classroom, following the text’s instructions to avoid the area, but after a few minutes many students decided to leave, including Sirek, who said he “kind of wanted to see what was going on.”

Walking out of Birge, Sirek saw cops with rifles hiding around the building.

“Then I don't really know what happened but somebody started yelling ‘get out’ so everybody started running,” Sirek said. “I didn't really know what for but I started running too.”

The first “WiscAlert” arrived at 11:45 a.m. The next message at 12:10 p.m., after the area had already been evacuated, gave the all-clear. No further information was released via text message during or after the null incident.

By the UW-Madison Police Department’s definition, WiscAlerts — UW-Madison’s emergency notification system — aim to warn people of potentially dangerous situations promptly so the community can take action to stay safe without creating unnecessary panic. WiscAlerts are sent to every “wisc.edu” email address and any registered phone numbers, according to UWPD’s website.

A WiscAlert is different from a Crime Warning. WiscAlerts are sent out while a situation is still unfolding and warns of an active threat to campus. A Crime Warning is sent to campus after a crime has occurred, but could potentially still pose a serious threat to campus.

Most crimes do not lead to a WiscAlert — the unconfirmed gunman was only the second within the last year.

A campus-wide reaction to WiscAlerts

As soon as enough information is available to confirm a situation, the UWPD Manager on call has the authority to issue a WiscAlert, according to UWPD Director of Communications Marc Lovicott.

UWPD confirms the case by communicating with nearby officers and assessing the source of the claim after receiving a report of a potentially threatening situation.

The MOC then considers the location, the nature of the crime, the target of the threat and if the danger is still relevant.

In rapidly shifting threats — such as an active shooter — UWPD immediately dispatches investigators to the scene and checks the campus security cameras. Additionally, they analyze the number of calls as well as the alignment of stories in these calls.

Bill Curtis, UWPD’s emergency management director, said even with the presence of a time constraint “we take every precaution that is feasible to ensure that we are sending messages that are valid when it comes to the safety and security of the campus.”

Steven Barcus, director of communications for UW-Madison’s International Division, remembers seeing the Nov. 1 WiscAlert email, locking his door, turning off the lights, and then “just watching for more information as it came forward.”

UWPD policy does not mandate updates on specific time intervals throughout an emergency situation. It is the decision of the MOC or the incident commander on the scene to decide when to send an update.

“If there is information to share, then we share it, but if there isn't information to share, and we're still investigating, then we try to send messages on a frequent basis just to keep the campus community informed,” Curtis said. “We balance sending frequent messages versus sending infrequent messages, which may cause unnecessary concern within the campus community.”

Additionally, the Clery Act requires all universities to impose certain security and safety policies as well as to disclose certain crime statistics. A WiscAlert must be sent if the event falls within the list of Clery Crimes and is occurring within Clery Geography.

The Clery Geography includes on-campus property, public property within campus or immediately next to it and non-campus property that is used in direct support of university programs. However, there are some areas in the larger Madison area — including State Street — that are often highly populated by students, yet not included in Clery Geography.

Lovicott said that WiscAlerts are rarely sent for incidents that occur off-campus unless they could impact campus.

Whether or not a WiscAlert is sent for an incident in which pieces of Clery requirements are not met are “very instant specific,” Curtis said.

Even if a situation meets all Clery guidelines, UWPD may decide to not send a WiscAlert. If law enforcement believe sending an alert could compromise their investigation, they can choose to delay informing the public. This typically takes place when UWPD has been informed of a crime and there is not a clear threat, but an active investigation is underway.

UWPD will always send an alert in situations that pose an immediate threat, such as an active shooter.

“If there is a threat to the campus community, we're going to inform the campus community,” Curtis said.

Students, faculty handle situations separate from UWPD

UWPD’s general recommendations to stay safe in an active shooter scenario are simple: run, hide and fight.

During the most recent WiscAlert, Sirek described the situation at Birge as confusing.

“I think it was a teacher [who told students to run], that’s what I heard somebody say, but I'm not positive who it was, I didn't see,” he said.

To prepare for incidents such as an active shooter, UWPD occasionally conducts presentations to instruct students, staff and faculty on survival tactics. Though he himself did not participate, as it was before he joined UW staff, Barcus said a group from the International Division did attend a Sept. 2016 training session.

According to Barcus, faculty and staff receive campus safety training during orientation and are directed to online resources that provide further direction in how to respond to various scenarios.

“I just remember being pointed towards the resources in one form or another and then looking at those,” Barcus said, noting he did not recall the exact format of his training. The training material is revisited through informative emails after incidents occur.

Sirek said his professor did not receive the WiscAlert on Nov. 1. When a student informed him of the warning, the professor told students to stay in the room until another update was sent. As students began to leave despite the instruction, he warned them to be careful but took no further action.

“He said that we should chill out for a minute before we really know what’s going on, but people kind of just left anyways,” Sirek said.

Individuals on campus can stay informed about crimes by reading the UWPD daily crime log, which includes all crimes reported within UWPD’s jurisdiction.

“When [students] receive a WiscAlert, we ask that they take it seriously,” Curtis said. “We send them when we want them to listen, when there is a critical incident or something that requires their attention.”

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