Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Active Shooter. Worst Day Ever.

I have no idea how to start this except to say my mind is a jumble. First, the human side. The victim is my son's age. The shooter just a couple years older. I have a parental compassion for both families. I can't begin to imagine the long journey from their homes yesterday to the institutions that require their immediate attention today - a funeral home and a courthouse. Prayers to all, their loss' are incalculable.

Answers or solace or understanding are just vapors, quickly glimpsed in the mind's eye then gone just as quickly. No one has an answer. And that is the very real hell of it. 

I'm going to talk shop now. Not callous or dismissive of the human factor, but I can actually see paths and actions that are important. Every public safety officer and administrator I've heard speak praised communication as one thing that went right. 

Where the shooting occurred is in a very student-heavy section on one boundary of campus. Panic would have driven thousands of people into pinch-points and "blind alleys" that could have been dangerous in their own right. So what went right? Social media. 

Facebook - hey, it's where moms and dads are now - did about 175,000 total reach under an hour. Only two official posts in that time. Mostly expressions of support, prayers, well-wishes. Very few inappropriate or odd posts. What were the outliers? Someone wanted to know the nationality of the victim - I believe this was a foreign national seeking reassurance that their friend or countryman was safe.

A few people commented on bad links on the homepage. The homepage is where I want to talk with you now. There were issues where none should have been. We talked about a plan, we went through the steps of our plan. There were mis-steps.

First, make your emergency web (your "active shooter" scenario) a one-click from anywhere solution. Don't pin it to having someone in a certain spot in a certain building. We kind of did this and it slowed us down. You should have an emergency page so simple and available that it can be customized and called from a mobile device. Dirt simple, no design. This is a facts-save-lives scenario. To hell with bells and whistles.

Second, your server is going to get pounded in a way it never has. Ever. The damn things start rocking back and forth, smoke spewing from the fans, there is so much traffic. The hand-off between your daily production server and your emergency message server needs to be rehearsed and tested again and again. 

The alert went into the regular "News" cue.
Should have become the entire homepage.
For reasons I don't yet understand (not a server or bandwidth guy), we put the emergency update on our homepage but it was many, many minutes (20? 30? more?) until it was loading as the homepage - which is what we needed to have happen. Immediately.

The information was on the homepage before the emergency page loaded, but it was buried in the bottom of the page under the "news" ticker (right). Active shooters and other disasters do not go in the text rows on the bottom of a homepage. 

People from my group, the server team and public safety will meet in the coming days and assess performance. This will be the most significant thing my group has to address. And we will do better. And we want you to do better. Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.

Analytics show over one-million pageviews for the 24 hour period. The event didn't occur until after 12 hours had already passed. These were mom's and dad's trying to figure out what was happening. News media trying to get the right information. Students and staff trying to ensure they are doing the things that the public safety officials want them to do. These people need immediate information. 

The homepage became the newsfeed
Dribs and drabs is fine. But it needs to be accessible. Schedule a meeting with your server staff today and talk this out. It's going to be worse than you think. Prepare for it. No excuses now.

I haven't even begun to scope the twitter traffic. On #purdue, it was moving faster than I recall seeing traffic fly when Steve Jobs passed away. Probably not that sustained, but it was simply a blurry column in continuous motion on tweetdeck. It was mostly user-generated, some public safety and a few "official" university tweets.

The twitter waters were running deep and fast. As the day went on and the pace changed twitter became a great platform for the news conference coverage, the coordination of a vigil and a place to talk about support services available on campus.

Third, have your graphics ready. Our facebook page at the beginning of the day had a bright "Winter Wonderland" banner. Nice, but not appropriate. Since you don't know what the event or tragedy will be  until it happens, you need to have generic, university-branded drab banners ready to go. Not a big thing, but all part of responding appropriately.

What else can I tell you? Hmm. You will be more distracted than you think. You will consider friends around campus and wonder about their safety. You will be voyeuristic, trying to find pics, or quotes that help orient you. I'm about 4 blocks from yesterday's shooting. I had friends in the building next to it sending me pics so I could comprehend the scale of the police response.

You will contact your family. Family and friends will contact you. My phone, email, twitter and FB were all busy all day. These people are important. Most of them understood when I said, "So glad you called, I am fine. It is very busy here right now but I appreciate your call and I'm looking forward to talking with you very soon. Bye".

Your office mates will want to talk. Babble in some cases. There will be political, moral and legislative debates. I saw people getting red-faced yesterday in, what should have been, quiet conversations to simply share views and emotions.

Our job now is to navigate back to normal. We will dance nervously when we take the vigil banner off Facebook and go to our next seasonal banner. What do we put on the homepage and how long does it last? It's a conversation. It will be listening and talking via our social media. It will be listening to advising and student affairs and administration.

Work is the easy part. Understanding what has happened, considering the human condition that lead a student to such a state of desperation that murder was the only avenue he saw- 

i have no idea.


  1. Great perspective, Pat. The wait time for your emergency landing page transition was a server caching issue, most likely. Our Drupal platform allows us to clear all caches in an instant, which is very useful in times like this. Hope you're doing alright today. Let's grab lunch next week.

  2. This is a great post that I've shared with our leadership. I can't imagine going through something like this and no matter how prepared you are, something will inevitably go wrong. Your insights, and I'm sorry your university had to experience it, will help better prepare our institution. Thank you.

  3. Thanks so much for your openness, candor and willingness to share what must have been a harrowing experience - from a technical, practical and thoughtful viewpoint. I am on a university crisis response team - social media being my primary responsibility - so this insight is invaluable - one only someone with (a terrible) experience can share. Thank you again.