BU Alert

Screenshot of BU Alert

The BU Alert application at Boston University is a robust collection of technologies, backup technologies, and supporting infrastructure designed to ensure that police and administrators can notify the campus community of emergencies quickly.

While portions of BU Alert send text messages and place phone calls, my application is focused on posting alerts on the web, sending them via e-mail, and displaying them on BU Television (through a third-party device).

This is not a playful search engine or fanciful website design. It's a serious application that's seen careful attention to detail. We review every changed line of code with at least two developers, and we launch new versions only with two of us watching the same screen throughout every step of the procedure..

Powerful servers support the application. They process routine e-mail throughout the day, but are ready to drop everything when an emergency message comes in, and churn out tens of thousands of messages in just minutes.

I hope this application never needs to be used the way it was designed.

On 16 April, 2007, a gunman shot and killed 32 students at Virginia Tech, wounded 23 others physically, and affected countless millions around the world. A review panel presented a 147 page report to the governor of Virginia following the massacre, detailing its events and making recommendations for avoiding such a tragedy in the future.

Amid the detailed description of events and specific recommendations for future improvements is a prevailing sense of how unexpected such a shooting was for those involved.

Students and faculty in other nearby rooms also heard the first shots, but no one immediately realized what they were. Some thought they were construction noises. Others thought they could be the popping sounds sometimes heard from chemistry lab experiments on the first floor. One professor told his class to continue with the lesson after some raised questions about the noise. When the noise did not stop, some people went into the hallway to investigate. One student from an engineering class was shot when he entered the hallway. At that point, terror set in among the persons in the classrooms who realized that what they were hearing was gunfire.

After the gunman had chained shut the building's exits (but before the shooting started), one student on the outside inadvertently put herself in danger anyway:

A female student trying to get into Norris Hall shortly before the shooting started found the entrance chained. She climbed through a window to get where she was going on the first floor. She did not report the chains, assuming they had something to do with ongoing construction.

In a perfect world, authorities could have notified students in Norris Hall in time for them to escape before they were ever in danger. In practice, there was hardly enough time. It may never be possible to notify everyone of such a castrophic and unexpected emergency in time to get people to safety. But if a single copy of a single message reaches even one student in time for that person to get to safety, every minute of energy devoted to this system was worthwhile.