UT’s Warning System Does Not Extend to Nearby Businesses
Students at the University of Texas at Austin stand across the street from campus after evacuating buildings on Friday, Sept. 14. Photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell, AP Photo/Statesman.com.
By Beth Cortez-Neavel
For Reporting Texas
AUSTIN – Thousands of University of Texas students, faculty and staff who evacuated the campus on Sept. 14 did not venture far. Just across the road from buildings under a bomb threat, they huddled near or inside businesses on Guadalupe Street. While the university had emptied the campus and coordinated efforts with city officials, employees at nearby businesses received no warning at all.
Jessica Shreeves, an employee at the clothing boutique Manju’s, called the owner after learning of the evacuation from her boyfriend, a UT student who was one of the 70,000 students, faculty and staff signed up to receive safety alert text messages from the University of Texas Police Department.
“We’re pretty much on campus as well,” Shreeves said. “And whatever is happening there is close enough to affect us right here.”
The boundaries between the UT campus and surrounding neighborhoods are porous. Yet the officials responsible for safety on and off campus see a strict boundary and divided responsibilities separating the two. The recent evacuation sheds light on the difficulty of coordinating emergency response when a threat arises – both on campus and off. As UT history shows, violence does not respect boundaries. Some victims of the 1966 Tower sniper had been on Guadalupe Street when they were shot.
Rhonda Wheldon, director of university operations and communications, said the campus text alert system is available only to staff, faculty and students. “We already have 70,000 telephone numbers on that system,” she said. “If we added anyone else interested in getting the alerts, we’re not really confident that the system would hold up.”
A threat of violence on campus is also a “true threat and emergency to a large part of downtown Austin,” Wheldon acknowledged. In keeping with the division of responsibilities UT has worked out with the city, campus officials alerted their city counterparts, who handled the off-campus response.
Unlike UT, Austin does not have a texting system to notify residents and businesses of emergencies, said Reyne Tallas, the Austin City Manager of Media Relations. “We might put something out on the e-mail for those that have signed up for email alerts,” he said. The city also communicates with residents online, through social media and through the media, he said.
During the bomb scare, the university police notified CapMetro to reroute city and UT shuttle buses and contacted the Austin Police Department to help re-direct city traffic away from campus.
In a news conference held after the buildings had been cleared for re-entry at noon, University Police Chief Robert E. Dahlstrom said that UTPD had sent texts and press releases to the local media as well as posting alerts on the University website and activating campus-wide sirens, which got the attention of businesses and off-campus residencies.
Adam Sebastian, the general manager of Tyler’s, a sporting goods store on Guadalupe Street, said he wondered about the siren and was worried it might cause a panic among students. He worried the crowds might pose “a hazard [for the store] because I can’t really determine or guess what’s going to happen.”
“We were ready to shelter if we needed to,” Sebastian said.
Knowing about a campus emergency as it unfolds would help businesses prepare. “Especially if it were to someone of upper management like myself who knows what to do in certain situations like that,” said Sebastian, who said his store has evacuation plans in place.
Brian Donovan, general administrator of the Austin Inter-Cooperative Council that owns and operates five co-ops near the UT campus, said he heard the sirens and was concerned that something might have happened on campus. A student told him the campus had been evacuated, but it wasn’t clear why, so he looked on the UT website for more information. “None of our buildings are actually on campus, but we’re close,” he said. “I think that if UT is going to announce threats that may affect West Campus that it would beneficial to be alerted to those threats.”
The off-campus dormitory University Towers was not officially contacted, said Tyrel Hullum, its community manager. “We’re four blocks away from campus and weren’t in the situation where residents needed to evacuate,” he said. “We told parents who called that the safest place for students was in their apartments. We had some students hysterical about the situation, but we did our best to calm them down.”
“We keep an eye on what goes on at UT so we can react immediately,” he added.
For businesses wanting to stay informed, Wheldon suggests they monitor the university social media.
“What we have encouraged people to do — like families, parents, and other interested parties — is have them sign up for the Twitter,” she said. She also recommended a program called “Be Safe, Texas,” which also has Twitter and Facebook accounts. The public can also download the university’s emergency RSS feed.
But employees of many Guadalupe businesses might not have time or a way of tuning in to social media while working on a shift. “Nobody called or told us or anything,” said David Hagan, a UT senior and cashier at Fuzzy’s Tacos on Guadalupe Street, who had received the alert message on his phone.
As it turned out, the evacuation was more disruptive than dangerous, and businesses on Guadalupe got more foot traffic than expected. “I don’t want to say we’ve benefited from it,” Hagan said, “but we’ve definitely provided that service for students.”
Jillian Bliss and Kelli Ainsworth contributed reporting.
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