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Napa Valley College's Lockdown a Lesson in 'Hyper-Information'

When two men assaulted and robbed a merchant outside a bank in Napa, CA and then fled by SUV to Napa Valley College, the community college had the first real opportunity to test out its emergency alert system. What law enforcement officers learned in the course of that day, said campus police chief Ken Arnold, is that new forms of technology are changing fundamental practices of law enforcement in both positive and negative ways.

According to police press releases, on Monday, April 20, 2009, shortly before 1 p.m., an Oakland, CA man pulled a gun on a bank customer in the parking lot as he was about to make a deposit. Witnesses watched as he then jumped into a white Lexus SUV being driven by another man. A few minutes later the Lexus was observed entering the Napa Valley College campus. A witness reported seeing at least one of the suspects leave the SUV and walk toward the campus.

By 1:10, the central dispatch office for local law enforcement had informed the college that an armed robber was on campus. By 1:15, after a conference with college president Chris McCarthy, Arnold, and the Napa Police Department, the campus made the decision to go into lockdown mode--which meant about 2,500 students, faculty, and staff were to remain exactly where they were. No entering or leaving rooms or buildings.

Law enforcement from the city of Napa, the Napa County sheriff's department, the highway patrol, and the college quickly established a security perimeter around the 168-acre campus. A command post was set up in a nearby parking lot. By 1:18 McCarthy had sent out an e-mail to staff and faculty with the subject header, "Urgent Email--Armed Man on Campus." By 1:31 the campus had sent out a text message via its notification system, AlertU, to college subscribers stating, "Armed man on campus. Stay in the room your [SIC] are in. Search of campus is on going. Suspect is black male in black shorts & red shirt."

A campus lockdown had begun, and police began a building by building search for the robbers. While it was only coincidental that the day happened to be the 10th anniversary of the Columbine school shootings, that fact added to the stress participants felt that day, said Arnold.

The Search for an Emergency Communication System
Two years ago Arnold had begun a search for a means to communicate with students. The school, which has an enrollment of about 6,000 full-time students, all commuters, was confident about its ability to reach faculty and staff, which involves using e-mail. But Napa Valley students don't receive college e-mail accounts. Besides, Arnold added, they don't check e-mail regularly, especially not while on campus. Arnold took a survey in 2007 of students in eight different classes to discover how he and his team could communicate with them in the event of an emergency. E-mail was discounted, as was a siren. "It might attract my attention," they told him, "but unless I knew what it was about, I'm not sure what I'd do."

The only thing the students said they did all the time, said Arnold, is text. "That seemed to be the one thing they consistently pay attention to."

So when the Foundation for California Community Colleges sought beta testers for a new alert system from Waterfall Mobile--AlertU--Arnold saw his chance to try out one of the new notification services he'd been hearing about. What impressed him were two aspects. First, it was easy. "Their primary thrust was SMS, which allowed me to talk to students," he said. "No thrills. Simple interface." Second, the service would be free for the college. The foundation offered a sponsorship option, in which local or foundation sponsors would pick up the cost in exchange for visibility on campus.

By November 2007, after providing feedback on functionality that ended up being implemented in the service, the college had adopted the AlertU platform. But up until the April 20 incident, the only time Arnold and his team had used the service was for testing. That day, he said, "was a live fire incident for the whole system."

Redeployments and Evacuations
As the lockdown progressed and the search for suspects continued, Arnold's team dispatched a series of text messages to subscribers, "as things changed or we got a sense that people were getting restless."

But campus police weren't the only ones doing the communicating.

The Web site for the local paper, Napa Valley Register, became a principle source of information during the emergency for those inside the lockdown and off campus as people used a blogging feature to write their impressions about what was going on. Likewise, the Twitter network was abuzz with commentary.

As Arnold pointed out, "The great thing about technology is you can get all kinds of information. And the downside is that you can get all kinds of information."

One student on the inside texted to his girlfriend in Dallas. As Arnold explained, "He was trying to save money, so he abbreviated parts of the message. The message implied that an armed man was in the room where he was." The girlfriend reached Napa's county dispatch, which relayed the information along to the agents staffing the command post. "We had to act as though it was a legitimate message until we could confirm it or not," he said.

The command post redeployed one tactical team that was about to start clearing the gym from one end of campus to the other end to take up positions around two buildings that form a viticulture center where the student was texting from. They weren't sure which building he was in. Also, because of its proximity to those two buildings, the campus child development center was immediately evacuated by police, and the kids were moved to a local fire department until they could be reunited with their parents.

Shortly after the evacuation was started, Arnold recorded in his final report on the incident, "contact was made with the person in the classroom and it was determined that the information was incorrect and there was no threat in the room." The student who had sent that initial message to Dallas had no way of knowing what that would trigger, Arnold said. "He was just texting his girlfriend."

This points out, he added, that while text messaging "went a long way to keeping people calm, the downside was that as people blogged or sent out information, it caused us to react to things that ultimately slowed down our ability to clear the campus."

Likewise, the suspects, who were attempting to blend into the campus community, ended up in the library. There, students, who were able to use the library's computers, were sharing information among themselves--including the assailants--in real time, which meant the suspects knew what was going on outside.

"Normally, we try to starve people of information if we think there's a hostage situation or a barricaded subject." Arnold explained. "We couldn't starve them. We had too many people sending out information. The big issue became trying to make sure that accurate information was getting out there in place of rumor. That became one of our goals."

Eventually the driver of the SUV was contacted via his own cell phone in the library, and he was talked into surrendering. Later, the second suspect was also found hiding in the library and taken into custody.

The gun and money were still missing, so law enforcement personnel decided to clear the campus building by building and escort people off campus in groups. But, according to Arnold, the plan to clear the campus quickly failed. People were texting each other saying it was over, so they began spontaneously leaving. Once control was lost, the decision was made to move people off the campus a quickly as possible. So an eighth and final AlertU text message was sent out nearly four hours after the first one had been delivered, telling everybody to leave campus.

A decision to search all vehicles exiting the campus to look for the gun and the money resulted in a significant traffic snarl, reported Arnold. Eventually, the money was found in a knapsack inside the campus cafeteria. The weapon--which turned out to be a BB gun--was recovered in the suspects' SUV, which sat in the college's parking lot.

The Final Outcome
Arnold was pleased with the texting service. Delivery time was fast, he said, and the few problems reported weren't a failure of Alert U. "Out of all five problems, it was either an issue with bad information users had put into the system, or they had their SMS system set up so they weren't getting bulk messages."

Most importantly, he said, "Had we not had AlertU, we could have had a completely different outcome. Had we had students we couldn't communicate to, if we weren't able to get them into a lockdown, keep them calm in areas they were in, and give them updates, then we would have had them out milling about. It would have made everything much more complicated and much more unstable."

As a result of the lockdown, the campus has decided to create an emergency response committee to develop lockdown procedures and training, recruit and train emergency building coordinators, and evaluate cost-effective methods for improving emergency communications. At the top of Arnold's own wish list for improving communications is a system of LCD displays placed in key locations to relay information.

Arnold has been through multiple drills and exercises to prepare the campus for just this type of event; but none of those practice sessions accounted for dealing with as many streams of information as he experienced that day. When events such as this one happen in the future, he said, the campus may dedicate one of its non-sworn, unarmed campus service officers to monitoring blogs, Twitter feeds, and other sources of information being generated by those involved and to cross-check it against what else is known.

"We've only just begun our discussions in law enforcement about operating in this hyper-informed set-up," he pointed out.

But in the end, as he concluded in his report about the emergency, "I am convinced that it was everyone's collective actions, large and small, which resulted in two individuals being arrested for armed robbery, the recovery of the stolen money, and no one getting hurt. I call that a good day."

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