Questions remain on C of C’s flawed alerts Info scarce, confusing during bomb scare

College of Charleston students and onlookers watch from King Street as events unfold on George Street following a bomb threat Tuesday.

A day after a bomb threat shook up the College of Charleston, students and parents continue to wonder what went wrong with the school’s emergency notification system.

After police left the campus and students were allowed back into evacuated buildings late Tuesday afternoon, President Glenn McConnell acknowledged that the Cougar Alert system didn’t work right and vowed to correct it.

The system sends out electronic messages to cellphones, emails and answering machines. It’s supposed to be the first and fastest way for students and staff to get real-time information in an emergency.

Most colleges instituted a similar system after the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007. The college installed its system that year, as did The Citadel and Charleston Southern University.

Several questions about what happened Tuesday in Charleston remained unanswered Wednesday.

Why was the first alert not sent out until 30 minutes after the bomb threat was received — after police with rifles were already on campus evacuating buildings? Why did the initial alert tell everybody a bomb had been found on campus?

Why did everyone who was supposed to get the message not receive it?

Why was there not more communication during the day, as students wondered what was going on and what to do?

The Post and Courier made repeated attempts to talk to somebody at the college who could answer those questions Wednesday. School spokesman Mike Robertson said the best person would be Randy Beaver, the school’s director of Environmental Health and Safety, who oversees the Cougar Alert system. Late in the afternoon, Beaver responded with a text message, saying he was sorry but had been tied up all day and would meet with a reporter Thursday.

Robertson also apologized for the delay.

Emily Ferguson, a 21-year-old philosophy and religious studies major, said she passed several officers with rifles on her way to a class Tuesday but had no idea what was going on until the erroneous alert that a bomb had been found.

“Our whole class got really quiet,” she said. “I was scared for maybe half a second.”

She figured if there really was a bomb she would have been evacuated but wondered how the mistake was made.

“By the end of the day, everyone knew it was just a slipup,” she said. “It would be cool if they let us know more about the system and what they are doing to fix it.”

The College of Charleston relies on the Connect-ED communication software from Blackboard Connect for its Cougar Alerts. The Citadel uses the same system for its Bulldog Alerts, according to Col. William Fletcher, chief of The Citadel’s Police Department.

When issuing an alert, users can either type a specific message or choose a pre-programmed alert.

Citadel spokeswoman Kim Keelor-Parker said that during training last year, someone selected the wrong pre-programmed message and sent out a snow advisory in the middle of summer. A supervisor immediately corrected the error and sent out a second alert to disregard the advisory, she said.

A test of The Citadel’s alert system earlier this month went smoothly, with more than 8,300 contacts receiving the test alert, which included text messages, emails and automated phone calls.

Charleston Southern University uses TechRadium’s Immediate Response Information System for its Buc Alerts. Like the system at the College of Charleston and The Citadel, a user can type in a message or choose a pre-programmed alert.

“It’s very easy to learn,” said Rick Brewer, Charleston Southern’s vice president of student affairs and athletics. “But you must practice, because you know in a crisis you tend to forget things.”

Each month, one of school’s 15 departments that are authorized to use the system does a test run, he said.

John Wilson, director of campus security, said the university hasn’t had to use its alert system in an emergency situation, such as a bomb threat, in more than a year. Most recently, the college alerted students to lightning strikes during a storm.

The bomb threat at the College of Charleston was called in to 911 at 10:38 a.m. Tuesday, according to a dispatch supervisor.

Police with rifles showed up at the campus about 10:45 a.m. and started ushering people out of buildings.

The first official word from the college was an email at 11 a.m. listing several buildings that were being evacuated after a bomb threat.

The first Cougar Alert went out at 11:07 a.m. saying a bomb had been found on campus.

A second alert went out at 11:18 a.m. saying there was no bomb but buildings were being evacuated because of a bomb threat.

Official communications were sparse and sometimes contradictory the rest of the day.

A 12:14 p.m. email from the Office of Student Life advised students to “shelter in place for the time being” and notify professors. Students said they didn’t know what that meant, since most classes were still set to meet.

McConnell sent out an email at 1:03 p.m. listing the buildings where afternoon classes were canceled.

Students said they weren’t sure what they were supposed to do until police cleared the scene around 4:30 p.m.

Shelby Davis, a 19-year-old English major, said she couldn’t quite tell whether the spread of misinformation was merely an accident or evidence of a flawed system. Regardless, she said, it was frustrating to receive more information from friends on campus than official sources.

Amanda Kerr and Christina Elmore contributed to this report. Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.