The Mass Exodus
The University of Texas at Austin witnessed first-hand in September how its evacuation plan operated during a bomb threat. Although the event turned out to be a hoax, many concluded that the process should have gone much smoother.
“I feel the safety of the students was not compromised, although better communication on our part certainly would have made this a better event,” stated UTPD Chief Robert Dahlstrom during a press conference in front of UT journalism students on Jan. 31.
Sirens, text messages, emails and intercom announcements alerted UT students, faculty and staff to evacuate the university campus at 9:50 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 14 as a man claiming to have ties with Al Qaeda called the university and warned that bombs were placed throughout campus. Although all students were detoured from the campus safely, there was miscommunication on where to evacuate, how far to evacuate from campus and why the evacuation was necessary.
“On the morning of the bomb threat, I had just walked out of my 9 a.m. Child Psychology class when I heard the sirens,” sophomore UT psychology major Taylor Wolfrom said.
“Since my class was in Burdine Hall, I had no service to check my phone during class. Once I received service, I checked my phone and saw the text from UT,” Wolfrom continued.
The text from UT read: “Evacuation Due to threats on campus immediately evacuate all buildings get as far away from the buildings as possible. Further information to come.”
Wolfrom remembers being confused and scared by the texts. She was not sure if she should power walk away from campus or stand around and wait for the next text.
KVUE reported that although numerous texts were sent out recommending to evacuate UT buildings, there were still students standing outside of buildings looking confused.
“When our safety department says evacuate, how much more information do you need? The message is coming for a purpose. People do not need to ask questions about who, what, when, where, why. Just react. I am not going to waste my time finding out more details. If someone tells me to move, I’m going to move. The days of questioning ought to be over,” stated Chris Plonsky, a member-at-large representative on the Capital Area Crime Stopper Board and UT Woman’s Athletic Director, via phone interview on Feb. 21.
Moreover, while Wolfrom and her peers were on campus and perplexed about the evacuation, other UT students who were off campus were equally confused, including Nicole Logan, sophomore UT finance major.
“I was beginning to get ready for my statistics class, when all of a sudden, I received a text informing me there was a bomb threat on campus. The first thing I did was turn on the television to get updates as I waited in distress for my roommates to hurry back home from their classes,” Logan said.
On the contrary, John David Roberts, junior UT corporate finance and investment banking major, did not receive a safety alert text. In fact, Roberts had to learn about the situation from the chaos.
“I realized there was a bomb threat when my classmates started to leave before class was dismissed. Although I did not receive the text, I am glad I was aware of my surroundings,” said Roberts.
“If I were a student, I would be very diligent about getting myself signed up for the Safety Alert System. Students rely on their phones and they want everything on mobile. The system is custom-made to service people that have mobile agendas. Whether you are a staff member or student, you need to sign up for it and be prepared that an emergency message will probably, and most likely, get to you fastest in that means,” said Plonsky.
In order to be aware and updated with campus safety, Plonsky encouraged students and faculty to take the initiative to sign up for the Safety Alert System via text message.
Even though Wolfrom, Logan and Roberts were safe, along with other UT students, Dahlstrom claimed that the evacuation process could be improved.
During a press conference last week, when asking UTPD officers if they thought the university handled the students’ safety effectively during the bomb threat last fall semester, all of the officers were quiet and looked at Chief Dahlstrom to talk first.
“I feel like the students were safe. The campus was safe. There are a lot of things we could have done better,” Dahlstrom said, “such as our communication.”
Dahlstrom continued by commenting how challenging it is to make sure everyone on campus is well-educated and aware of what to do, where to go, and how to react once alerted to evacuate.
“Anytime you have new students continuously coming and going it is difficult to teach them everything on each event,” Dahlstrom stated.
Plonsky reassured that every time there is an incident on campus, representatives who are in sync with students’ public safety attend post discussion meetings to determine how they did and what they could do better. Therefore, to prevent future confusion, the UTPD has created ways of promoting the safety alert text messages.
To keep up with the new batch of students every year, UTPD educates the UT community through its website and freshman orientation regarding how to properly evacuate the campus.
On the UTPD website, the evacuation plan specifically states that, "The recommended minimum distance for evacuation is 300 feet from the building. If a large, well-constructed office building is the target and a threat is directed toward a specific floor, evacuate that floor and the floors immediately above and below it."
Although this evacuation plan is specifically laid out, there was still much confusion on what to do during an evacuation. Dahlstrom attributes this confusion to simply not knowing the evacuation plan.
“Most students, faculty, and staff do not go to the emergency page or UTPD home page to read about safety until they either become a victim or there are other tragedies in the country,” continued Dahlstrom.
UTPD encourages all students and faculty to read through the evacuation plan every year. They also recommend that students come to Safety Week in October of each year.