For almost ten years, my university has employed an emergency alert text-messaging, phone call, and e-mail system (currently called PSUAlert) to alert students, faculty, and staff of emergencies. I remember when announcements of the system first began to roll out via e-mails in my faculty inbox, and I was thrilled to see my university’s proactive approach to maintaining safety on campus. I signed up for e-mail, text, and phone messages, assuming that emergencies would validate a multi-portal approach to notification. For example, if there were an active shooter incident on campus, I would want to be made aware as soon as possible as many ways as possible.
Unfortunately, over the years PSUAlert has become a tool for notifying campus subscribers of information that comes across more as the university’s attempt to protect themselves from liability after unsafe events occur on campus, rather than as a notification tool used for protecting its campus residents and employees.
Recently, over the course of less than a week, I received over 10 alerts from the notification system, each of them detailing whether phones were currently working, not working, or partially working on campus.
Not even considering the other concerning matter that a renowned higher education institution cannot manage to maintain their phone lines (which, granted, is disturbing) I am left astonished that a mechanism for alerting subscribers to emergencies could be so patently misused to the point that, instead of protecting campus, it is placing our campus at risk.
How does this over-notification go beyond mere annoyance into significant risk? One word:
What this term refers to is an individual’s diminished response to a stimulus given repeated exposure over time. Evolutionarily, we are primed as human beings to attend to stimuli that are novel and/or that we associate with danger. Overuse of the PSUAlert system fights both of these currents of attention. The numerous alerts throughout one day eliminate any sort of novelty and the overwhelming nature of the alerts (i.e., non-threatening) serve to dispatch any likelihood that subscribers will attend to the messages when they arrive. In fact, as the recent slew of ‘phone-gate’ alerts were coming across, I was in a store making a purchase when my phone rang. I checked it and then calmly told the store clerk that it was just the PSU Emergency Alert system calling again.
And then I put the phone back in my person without checking the voicemail.
This is not what alert messaging systems are meant to do, and it goes without saying that, if in fact that message I received had been about an imminent threat on campus, I would have missed it due to my own desensitization to the Alert System.
This is the exact opposite of PSUAlert’s intended purpose!
Another layer to add to the PSUAlert failure is it’s use of notifying subscribers when a sexual assault is reported on campus. My concern about this goes back, again, to desensitization. These messages notifying us of a reported sexual assault are not phrased as calls to action and often do not include information about suspected perpetrators, but rather focus on providing the demographics of the report: date/time/location.
During certain periods of campus life, such as home football game weekends, subscribers will receive perhaps 3-4 alerts of reported sexual assaults via PSUAlert. As these accrue over time, initial responses of horror and empathy can give way to a sort of apathy. As subscribers, we are not given any option for agency in response to these reports of assaulted women and men. Instead, we are seemingly encouraged through the alert medium to sit passively by, and as we encounter the same messages again and again we run the significant risk of these assaults becoming ‘normalized.’
What does this mean for us as a community?
I wish I knew.
It’s incredible to me that my university, which has a highly regarded prevention research center, has not examined the effects of the PSUAlert system on campus safety and, more to the point above, community views of sexual assault survivors and perpetrators. I cannot find any data regarding the influence of PSUAlert or any other university emergency alert system on its subscribers.
Isn’t it important to know whether we are becoming desensitized, not just to emergency alerts, but also to the traumatic experiences of survivors? At my university, we know better than to employ a universal system without first examining its efficacy. In my field of developmental science, it has been shown again and again that good intentions have no bearing on good outcomes, and certainly do nothing to prevent treatments or interventions from proving harmful instead of helpful (ahem, D.A.R.E., Scared Straight, the list goes on and on).
For me, that’s the most important question we need to be asking as engaged citizens.
Given the way PSUAlert is currently used, it is helping or harming us as a community?
I want to know–don’t you?