CHAMPAIGN — When shots rang out in Campustown early Sunday, a series of emergency messages were relayed to 65,000 students, employees, parents and others signed up for Illini-Alerts.
The emergency notification system, mandated by the federal Clery Act, sends email and text messages in the event of a campus emergency. They're also posted on Facebook and Twitter at @IlliniAlert.
The first message went out 12 minutes after police took the call, at 12:50 a.m., and three others followed, the last at 6:46 a.m. giving the all-clear. Most people received them within 3 minutes, according to UI police spokesman Patrick Wade.
While the alerts mentioned a "shooting" and "shots fired," none said specifically that people had been injured or killed.
Police have a series of templates they can quickly modify and send to get the word out fast, Wade said. In this case, they used the template for "active shooter," but there are others for fires, bomb threats, tornado warnings and the release of hazardous materials, he said.
"It usually just comes out as 'avoid the area,'" Wade said.
"These things obviously happen very quickly," he said, and police often don't know how serious a situation is right away.
It does the same with hazardous-material calls, which could be anything from a false alarm to a "chemical cloud hanging over campus," he said.
"So we send the alert: 'Please avoid the area, hazardous materials release,'" he said. "Most of the time in these kinds of emergency situations, we don't have a clear picture yet of what's going on, but we know we have to tell people something."
In middle-of-the-night emergencies, the desk staff often has to send out messages, with permission from a sergeant or lieutenant authorized to approve Illini-Alerts, Wade said.
"Every police officer in the area was jumping on top of this thing and trying to help the victims and get people out of the area," he said. "At that point, they're still sorting through what's going on. Is it still an active shooter? Has he left the area? Our immediate concern is not only the safety of people in the area but getting people information to stay safe."
The UI Police Department has separate Twitter and Facebook accounts where it can issue more details, although in this case, the Champaign Police Department was handling the release of information, Wade said. The first @UIPD Twitter message was posted at 3:44 a.m., saying: "Police are investigating a shooting near Third and Green. Please avoid the area and call @ChampaignPD if you have information."
Police Chief Jeff Christensen sent out an email to the campus with more details at 10 a.m. Sunday.
Wade, who was out of town over the weekend, was on the phone at 2 a.m. with other officers as the shooting investigation unfolded and doesn't remember any purposeful decision not to include information about shooting victims.
Wade agreed that it's important to get information out about injuries, but "what we're saying is that we don't feel the Illini-Alert system is the appropriate place for that information."
"Given that there were so many people in the area, a lot of people injured, in the first few minutes there were other things that took priority over telling people things that can wait until later," he said.
The website says it is designed "for incidents which present an imminent threat to life, health or safety to the general campus population. These messages provide emergency information and instructions for personal protective actions."
"Once we start going away from that, and start issuing additional information that we can say on social media or in a press release or campus safety notice via email, then we start to get away from the Clery Act definition of what's 'notification of emergency,'" Wade said.