University of North Carolina Officials Cite Glitch, Human Error in Siren Delay

In an apology statement, officials said the university is taking immediate steps to correct the issues so such errors do not happen again.

by Ray Gronberg, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C. / July 27, 2015
(TNS) -- Attributing it to “two human errors” and “a glitch in the communications process,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill administrators have apologized for a delay in issuing follow-up explanations for a campus emergency declaration.

The joint apology came from campus police Chief Jeff McCracken, Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Matt Fajack and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp.

“We assure you that the university is taking immediate steps to correct these issues so that such errors do not happen again,” the trio said in said in a joint statement posted to UNC’s website.

They added that officials will evaluate the effectiveness of the changes late next month, when they conduct a beginning-of-the-semester test of the campus siren system.

The sirens worked fine on Wednesday, when officials sounded them after declaring an emergency because two people had been robbed at gunpoint on campus.

They mean students, faculty, staff and visitors should go inside or take cover because there’s an immediate threat of some sort to their safety.

But the sirens don’t, in themselves, explain the nature of the emergency. That’s where follow-up Web bulletins, emails, text messages and social-media postings come in — and all of those were late in coming Wednesday night.

The result was “confusion about the status of the safety threat and unnecessary concern for people who were on or near campus,” McCracken, Fajack and Crisp said.

Their statement didn’t offer any detail about what specific mistakes caused the problem, or about the glitch that contributed to it.

But little about the “Alert Carolina” process is automatic.

The sirens are triggered only on orders from UNC’s Department of Public Safety. They’re generally reserved for when there’s an “armed and dangerous” intruder on campus, major hazardous-materials spills, or tornado warnings or other “potentially life-threatening” weather conditions.

Public Safety does have catch-all authority to trigger the sirens for a “general alert” covering other emergencies, including “potential acts of terrorism.”

Once it uses the sirens, the department then has to notify the campus IT office that explanatory messages should go out.

By policy, IT has the choice of using “some or all” of the possible distribution channels for them.

Officials reserve the right to hold off on beginning the notification process if “the professional judgment of responsible authorities” is that a public alert would interfere with helping victims or quelling an incident.

But Chancellor Carol Folt’s public comments on Thursday left no room for anyone at UNC to invoke professional judgment as a defense for the previous night’s delays, as she termed them “completely unacceptable.”

By the time she spoke, officials already had acknowledged a system failure and begun the after-action reviews that the later apology conceded had identified mistakes.

©2015 The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.