On March 18 of this year, the Mt. SAC public safety department recorded the entry below in its campus crime log. Disorderly conduct – criminal threats – ARREST;
Non-student made threat to blow up school.
If an emergency such as a bomb scare, a fire or a shooting were to actually occur on campus, Mt. SAC does not presently have a mass-alert system to immediately warn its 65,000 student population.
In a Mountaineer article from Mar. 25, 2008, director of public safety Jeff Parker said, “The only system we currently have in place is to be able to call division offices.”
Last week, Parker said that this is still the basic plan that the school uses.
“Currently, if we were to have an emergency on campus, we would do telephone trees to all division offices, alerting them to the problem, campus-wide email to all members of the college community that do have campus email addresses, and our public address systems on our mobile vehicles,” said Parker.
Parker added that the campus-wide email alert would not include students at the present date, but that “the plan is that students can and will be able to sign up for that type of service” in the future.
Some students have expressed concerns over the lack of an immediate mass-alert system for emergency situations.
“It’s a little worrisome, you know?” Kirsten Stowers, 19, said. “They’ve just set up that whole email system with the school, so that would probably be helpful, but I’m not sure that everyone would check.”
Matthew Shanahan, 23, an aerospace engineering major, believes that Mt. SAC should, at the very least, have a mass public address system in place.
“Honestly I didn’t even realize that we had such a lacking in a mass communication system but that’s kind of scary you know, to find out about it,” Shanahan said.
In July 2007, the Mt. SAC health and safety committee formed an emergency preparedness task force strictly for the purpose of discussing the emergency response issues that the college faces.
Karen Saldana, the district risk manager, is also the chairperson for both the health and safety committee and the emergency preparedness task force.
“Health and safety is such a black topic that we wanted to narrow it down by having a group of individuals who could just focus on emergency response,” Saldana said.
Mt. SAC’s emergency preparedness task force is a sub-committee of the health and safety committee, which serves as the primary advisory body to the President’s Advisory Council regarding health and safety issues.
In the minutes of a Mar. 7, 2008 meeting of the President’s Advisory Council, the president of Mt. SAC, Dr. John S. Nixon said that the college was interested in having the ability to notify staff and students in the event of an emergency.
As of May 2009, Mt. SAC had not purchased or selected which system to use for future campus emergencies.
“I would say probably the primary challenge I’m having is just the compatibility of the various technologies and wanting to have the best system in place at Mt. SAC,” Saldana said. “I’m looking long-term. I’m looking down the road. I want a system that’s going to meet our communication needs here for any kind of disaster event on campus.”
Saldana said that ideally, multiple technologies would be part of the mass alert system, since different types of communication would be needed for different events.
“We have essentially started looking at demonstrations as early as January of this year,” Saldana said. “We had demonstrations of some text alert systems and I continue to view ongoing demonstrations of various types of technologies, not only including text alerts, but phone messaging, public announcement systems, bell systems, things of that nature. The whole investigation is still ongoing, and includes that whole text alert process.”
Parker, who is also a member of the emergency preparedness task force, also attributed the slow movement on the mass-alert system to the school being careful in its selection of a multi-faceted product.
He added that since a good number of Mt. SAC’s students are older, and may not be familiar enough with cell phones to receive a text alert, that a redundant system is needed.
“I do not believe that the funding has been the speed bump in this whole process,” Parker said. “It’s a case of looking at the right systems for our particular campus.”
Kelly Smith, 23, a criminal justice major, said that a text message service would be beneficial to her fellow students.
“I know some other schools that have adopted other systems like via internet or via text messaging,” Smith said. “Actually the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, they text students when there’s an emergency, so I mean it kinda sucks that we don’t have a system like that, but if we did, it’d probably be very helpful.”
The text alert system would be voluntary. A student would have to sign up to receive alerts through texts or a voice message.
Saldana said that text alerts would work well for “external communications” but will be only one component of a mass alert system.
“If you’re off campus and I need to notify you of a campus closure, that’s a good way to get a notification out to you,” Saldana said. “But if I’ve got an event that’s occurring on campus, I need immediately to communicate with you, and that’s where our lack of public address (P.A.) system comes into play.”
Though Jeff Parker believes in the effectiveness of P.A. systems, he said that he does not want public safety to rely solely on that technology for a future mass-alert system.
“I truly am a great believer in real-time ability, and that’s why there’s going to be redundant systems,” Parker said. “If a system is breached or there’s a problem with a system, a good majority of our buildings are on emergency power. So, we won’t traditionally lose telephone service or public address system service.”
Parker said that in his personal opinion, a “real-time public address [system], backed up by technology in the form of text and emails” would be the best solution for a mass-alert system at Mt. SAC.
Karen Saldana estimated that Mt. SAC could have a text alert system available as early as the Fall of next year, assuming that a vendor is found and is compatible with what the school would like to do.
“The most important, and probably the most challenging thing of this whole process is making sure that all the technologies are compatible,” Saldana said.
When asked if the campus needed a mass-alert system for emergencies, Saldana said, “Absolutely. I think you have to have a means of being able to communicate.”
Saldana said that a formal request for proposal has not been issued for the mass alert system yet, so she could not give a price of how much it would cost to bring to Mt. SAC.
Saldana did give an example, saying that a comparison would be the cost of the text alert systems for the CSU campuses, which cost about $1 per student enrollment annually. With Mt. SAC’s 35,000 full-time students and a 65,000 total population, including part-time and non-credit students, Saldana estimated that the cost for a similar system would run about $35,000-65,000 per year.
According to Saldana, school budget cuts could possibly affect the school gaining a mass-alert system, but she reiterated that students and staff are safe at Mt. SAC.
“Safety is our priority here,” Saldana said. “That’s my job. I am an advocate for safety on campus, and I have a lot of other advocates on this campus as well, so we’re gonna put that right up there as a main priority, but I think budget challenges…we’re going to be faced with those in the next year or two.”
Saldana added that Mt. SAC has spent the last year training staff in each of the buildings on building emergency procedures.
“You’re not without the support out there as a student,” Saldana said. “You’ve got well-trained staff on this campus that will know what to do.”
Saldana added that she is looking forward to having a student representative at the health and safety committee meetings each month. Ideally, the representative could bring forth issues and be the voice, as well as the eyes and ears, for the student body on the emergency preparedness task force, and for updates on campus incidents and facilities.
Johnathan Hurst, 20, a student and employee of Mt. SAC said that he feels safe at school.
“I work with event services and on certain events, we have to have walkie talkies with us and every time there’s an issue, security is always quick to respond, and they take care of it, they’re good with it,” Hurst said. “I think the law enforcement here at the school is pretty good.”
Jill Dolan, the director of public affairs at Mt. SAC, set up a hotline last month that features messages about emergency situations on campus, health advisories, and campus closings at 909-594-5611 ext. 6219.
“Safety of our staff and our students is a top priority,” Dolan said. “Obviously, Karen [Saldana is] spending time, if not weekly, monthly, investigating different systems, so we are making an effort to move forward.”
Jeff Parker said that since he became the director of public safety at Mt. SAC, that finding an adequate mass-alert system has been a priority.
“Frankly, people are going to be looking to me to say ‘What are you doing to make sure that your department practice of getting everyone home safe is assured?’ and I want to be able to have the answers,” Parker said.
When asked if the campus is safe, Parker had an immediate answer.
“It is a safe campus, yes,” Parker said. “I believe it’s because of the entire team. It’s not because of public safety. It’s not because of the faculty. It’s the entire team and the students take a lead part of that team. It’s the entire college community that makes it this way and it’s just like any other community or any other city.”
-Sabina Gallier, Ray Peregrina, Vanessa Solis
The Mountaineer print edition
Vol. 71 issue 4