CONWAY, Ark. (KTHV) - Universities in Central Arkansas are evaluating their emergency notification systems, after an alert from a school in Houston ended up going to students here and in other states.
Students at Harding and University of Central Arkansas received alert messages that originated at Lone Star College and were meant to inform students about a gas leak.
According to Craig Russell, the Director of Public Safety at Harding, officials at Lone Star made a relatively easy mistake when they sent the message to students who had previously attended, as well as those currently enrolled. But it was a mistake that needlessly caused a scare across the South.
“We received about 12 phone calls in regards to that,” said Officer Michael Hopper, a spokesman for the UCA Police Department. “We were able to determine pretty quickly that this was some sort of an erroneous message.”
Russell added that Harding’s police department got three calls, but the exact number of students from either school who received the messages is unclear.
Most students found out about the problem when both universities’ police department published notices online to say there was no issue on their campuses.
“I was going through Twitter, and I just saw a notification on there, and it said, ‘please evacuate all buildings,’ or something,” recalled Abigail West, a UCA student. “But then it said, from UCA, ‘if you got this this is not from us.’”
According to local media reports in Houston, Lone Star College recently switched to a new alert system provider, and accidentally sent the message to students who currently attend as well as those who used to attend.
The message was sent from the number 672-83 and read, “Attention. There is an emergency on campus. Calmly evacuate all buildings using available exits. Move away from buildings and wait for further instructions.” A second message clarified that the issue was on the University Park campus, but still did not indicate that it was from Lone Star College, which confused many of the students who received it at other schools.
“Yeah, it looked just like they always do, just normal,” West stated. “And I mean, I would’ve believed it if it came to my phone.”
Hopper said that UCA takes steps to avoid problems like this. “We are as specific as we can be, when it relates to an emergency situation on campus,” he said, though adding that in some instances of police activity, exact details may harm officers’ ability to preserve safety.
He did note that, “all of our messages that we send out will indicate that they are from our department.”
Both Harding and UCA have multiple forms of alerts that staff and students can sign up for. If they select emails, text messages, and phone calls, they will be more likely to receive the notification, and more confident in its authenticity. Harding also uses a service called Pipeline, which contains information from several departments of the school, including Public Safety.
If students do not sign up or doubt that an alert they received is authentic, Hopper mentioned that they can look for other clues. “You know, if you’re in a residence hall or something, and all of a sudden you start hearing doors open or something like that,” he said, “it could indicate that something’s going on.”
Email alerts from Harding begin with the phrase, “This is an emergency alert from Harding University,” but Russell said the text messages do not include such an identifier. He said this case will lead him to try to change that.