Alert used appropriately

The tornado warning this past weekend marked the second time that the University’s Illini Alert system had been used since its creation. Around 7 p.m. on Friday, the school sent text messages and e-mail alerts reading, “Emergency! Tornado expected to hit UI campus. Seek shelter indoors immediately and turn to local media for details” after a tornado warning was issued when swirling clouds were spotted in Savoy.

The decision to activate alerts like these is a serious one, and in the case of the severe weather last weekend, we feel the University got it right. In order to preserve the integrity of the message system, the University must make the decision to use it judiciously.

While no tornado touched down in the campus area on Friday, the storm caused significant damage to property in Champaign and Urbana, and tornado sirens sounded around 7 p.m. The potential for a tornado in the area was a significant safety threat, making the storm a perfect example of when the Illini Alert system should be used. The campus-wide power outage in March did not demand the same treatment.

We agree with the importance that school officials must be able to communicate with students in the event of a crisis. But we want the University to know that this Alert system cannot take it lightly. The alerts were sent for the first time during the March power outage, which we argue was not an appropriate time to use the communication.

Illini Alert was created in the wake of shootings that occurred on campuses around the country, including the tragedy at Northern Illinois University in February 2008. While the explanation provided for the outage was helpful, it should not have been presented to students through an “emergency” alert. Along with causing unnecessary alarm, sending alerts in circumstances like these undermines the efficacy of the system. If alerts are sent for non-emergency situations in the future, students will start to ignore them, which could have disastrous consequences in the case of an actual emergency.

We understand that the university does not take lightly the decision to send out an alert. However, in order in order for the system to be effective, it should be activated only in cases where an immediate threat to student safety exists.