University must strive to perfect CMU Alert system

On Tuesday, Harold Taylor Jr., a 59-year-old man who worked for Eaton Electrical Company, died in an electrical accident while working in Wean Hall. Soon after the incident, the Carnegie Mellon alert system, CMU ALERT Emergency Notification System (ENS), sent out the following message: “As you may be aware, a number of emergency first responders are in Wean Hall responding to an isolated incident involving an individual working with an outside contractor. There is no cause for evacuation or other precaution.”

While the alert was intended to calm any possible anxieties raised by the presence of medical personnel on campus, the wording of the message was imprecise and unclear, which could only serve to deepen those anxieties. Some students received an incomprehensible message containing typographical errors.

CMU ALERT ENS has been a work in progress since its creation. Sometimes students do not receive alerts in a timely fashion even when potentially dangerous situations, such as the northeast earthquake in 2011, are unfolding on or near campus. These issues first came to light during the Spring 2012 semester, when both Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh suffered bomb scares and a shooting occurred at UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC.

Students clearly need to be notified of incidents of this magnitude, especially when they occur on or near campus. However, Taylor’s death was not a state of emergency — his death, while obviously carrying emotional weight, did not have immediate impact on the university. The alert clearly directs the disturbance away from the school, stating that the incident was “isolated” and involved an “individual working with an outside contractor.”

If the event did not involve a university community member, and was not a threat of widespread violence, was an immediate alert necessary? As the alert stated, there was “no cause for evacuation or other precaution.” Carnegie Mellon handled this incident well, but perhaps the warning was unnecessary.

For this type of tragic situation, CMU ALERT ENS could have sent out a campus-wide email later when it had more information, instead of issuing a campus alert so soon after the incident.