Faculty meeting focuses on gunman disruption response

Head of MIT Police discusses emergency alert system

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: This story mistakenly indicates that the faculty meeting focused on the gunman hoax, while it was just one among a number of topics. It also neglected to credit notes provided by Jonté D. Craighead ’13.

MIT “failed abysmally” in promptly notifying the community after receiving a false Feb. 23 report of a gunman on campus, MIT Chief of Police John DiFava said at the last faculty meeting, following an internal review of the events on the day of the scare. But the police response on the scene was “superb,” DiFava said.

Cambridge Police received the hoaxer’s tip at 7:28 a.m. and tweeted a warning at 7:35 a.m., but MIT’s emergency website was not updated until 8:47 a.m. Several text messages and emails were sent out in the hour following that update. According to DiFava, MIT Police is working on several steps to remedy inefficiencies in the notification system.

Yet at 7:30 a.m., “upwards of 16 police officers” from MIT and Cambridge were already at 77 Mass. Ave. They proceeded to lock down the Main Group buildings, searching room to room in groups of four, each group with at least one MIT officer familiar with the campus, according to DiFava. Their performance “vindicated all of our efforts to train our officers.”

DiFava said that police response times to school “gunman situations” in the past 15 years, including the Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedies, have been much slower than the “incredibly significant” two-minute response from MIT and Cambridge, though there were multiple casualties at both Columbine and Sandy Hook before police learned of the shooters.

He also said that training since Columbine has influenced police responses. Officers then were told to “set up a perimeter” and “don’t let anybody in or out — wait for tactical units to arrive.” The respondents on Feb. 23 were instead trained to move in immediately.

But, DiFava said, the combination of this “tunnel vision” and an imperfect infrastructure meant that neither DiFava himself nor the larger MIT community was aware of the situation as the officers began to secure the Main Group. It took 49 minutes for word to start moving up the chain of command. After DiFava got the call, it was another 14 minutes before MIT’s alert was out, he said.

Now MIT Police has installed a button that a sergeant can press to immediately send out a emergency alert — albeit a “very generic message” that “something is happening” — and set up a bridge phone call to bring all the information together, according to DiFava.

In the wake of the Feb. 23 events, MIT Police is also looking into training officers to feed information to superiors as emergency situations develop, though DiFava stressed that no set of instructions would be appropriate for all cases.

There was also discussion at the faculty meeting about making MIT Alert text messages and emails opt-out rather than opt-in.

Biology department head Tania Baker expressed concerns that not everyone in the MIT community, especially those with joint affiliations with the Broad Institute or the Whitehead Institute for example, were kept in the loop. DiFava acknowledged the difficulty of reaching everyone who could potentially be affected by an emergency.

“We’ve identified about 120 departmental labs and centers. We’re going to ask that they set up emergency coordinators and plans,” he said. MIT Police will supply templates to these coordinators.

DiFava also hoped to have an additional supervisor in the office at all times to send out notifications and assist the desk officer, who on the morning of Feb. 23 had to answer hundreds of phone calls alone.

More resources in general would be helpful, DiFava suggested, noting that since MIT Police is the only 24/7 operation on campus, it has to handle minor mishaps that don’t pose a threat to public safety.

“If you get stuck in a garage, you call the Police Department. We need to get away from that,” he said.

The false report of the gunman was sent to the Cambridge Police Department using an Internet relay service typically used by people with hearing or speech impairments. According to MIT treasurer and executive vice president Israel Ruiz SM ’01, the caller said the gunman intended to retaliate against MIT for the death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Leon Lin about 11 years ago

From the author: due to miscommunication, a misleading headline appears above this article. The gunman hoax was one agenda item but not the main focus at the faculty meeting.

Michael Plasmeier about 11 years ago

Instead of just one message, they should have buttons for a variety of messages with different instructions on what to do - ie stay in place, evacuate, etc. Or better yet give the dispatcher the password to send out messages.