Chief Jeff McCracken Talks About Campus Safety and University Communications Methods
Carolina’s siren tests (conducted each semester) are much more than a way to make sure the emergency siren system and related communication methods work properly. They also give people on campus an opportunity to think about what they would do in an actual emergency.
And that forethought can make a big difference in an emergency situation, said Chief Jeff McCracken, director of public safety.
“People should have a plan in mind about how to respond in an emergency because it’s very difficult to plan for an emergency when you’re in the middle of one,” he said. “It’s important for people to know beforehand where the exits are, where the fire escapes are, the safest place in the building to be if a tornado is spotted, that kind of thing. Planning decreases panic and increases the chance for a better outcome in an emergency situation.”
McCracken also encouraged people to be familiar with the three types of notifications University officials use to inform the campus community about safety issues: Emergency Warnings, Timely Warnings and Informational Messages (see alertcarolina.unc.edu for details about each notification). He spoke with the Gazette about keeping the campus community safe.
In an emergency, there’s an imminent threat of some type and we want people to seek shelter for their safety immediately. As soon as we become aware that there is a life-threatening situation, and it’s verified, we will activate the sirens and all the other communications that come with it.
In a timely warning, we want to heighten people’s awareness and ask them to do something specific for their safety. The timeframe backs down a little bit while we investigate to get more information.
The informational message is solely for information; there is no continuing threat to campus and no requirement about the time in which we send that notification. This level has the longest gap between the incident and when people are notified.
That being said, we want to send these messages just as soon as we can – with correct information. That can take a while, especially if we’re working with another agency; that’s just the way it is.
We want to give as much information to the community as possible so people can make decisions concerning their safety, but there are times we can’t release everything we know about a case. If we have certain information that is crucial to an ongoing investigation, we may not be able to include it in the message to campus because it will impede our ability to proceed with the investigation.
Every situation is different, so to say there’s a fine line where we’re always going to do this or not going to do this just isn’t realistic.
Even so, part of the perception that there is an increase in crime in the Chapel Hill areas has to do with the fact that we’re doing a good job communicating with the community. Our current policy is much more proactive than it used to be; we push information to the public. That’s particularly true for the informational emails people now receive. In the past, they may not have known about those incidents. I think that leads to the perception that there is an increase in crime when actually there isn’t.
One new step we’ve taken is to work with Chapel Hill police to increase foot patrols in the downtown area on weekend nights in targeted locations. We hope it will not only serve as a deterrent for people who would cause problems but also will help people feel safer in those areas.
First, we want people to be aware of their surroundings and report anything that is suspicious. Sometimes people are uncomfortable doing that because they think they’ll have to become personally involved if they call the police. That is not the case. If people see something or someone suspicious, they can call Public Safety and we will send an officer to investigate.
The caller doesn’t have to meet with the officer or file a report. We’ll look into it, and take any appropriate action.
We also want people to use some common safety tips, which are listed on the Alert Carolina page. Use the public transportation on campus, particularly at night. The University invests a lot of money in our public transportation process, and student fees support Point-to-Point. There aren’t many hours of the day when there isn’t some kind of transportation available.
People should use the emergency phones located across campus. It doesn’t have to be an emergency. People can call if they see something that’s suspicious, and we’ll investigate. These phones are easy to use. Just push one button and it rings directly to our communications center.
They also can call the Chapel Hill-Carrboro-UNC Crime Stoppers tip line at 919-942-7515. Calls to Crime Stoppers are confidential and anonymous. Or, they can go to the Silent Witness online reporting form on the Public Safety website, bit.ly/14oOmkv. We’ll follow up information we get in any of those ways.
We are constantly looking for partners across campus to address crime and public safety concerns. If people want public safety programming we are prepared to make presentations on a number of topics, or we can tailor information to address a particular issue of interest. We want to help as much as we can. It’s really about building trust so when we send a notice to campus, people will say, ‘I might not know everything that’s going on but safety officials have the facts and they’re making decisions based on what they believe is best for the campus.’ If we can get to that point, it will be wonderful.