On April 16, 2007, as an active shooter attacked students and faculty on Virginia Tech University’s campus, Weber State University police chief Dane LeBlanc was having a conversation with university administrators about how they would react if facing a similar situation.
LeBlanc and the administrators decided campus police should take control of WSU’s emergency management system, and it became apparent that communication during an emergency situation needed to be among the most important priorities.
The idea of Code Purple was introduced shortly thereafter.
“In taking over the emergency management program,” LeBlanc said, “we immediately saw a few things wrong with the program, and one of them was crisis communication. One of the first steps we took was to build a crisis communication plan and improve our method for mass communication with our students.”
LeBlanc and his staff at the police department began developing a system in which they could communicate with students through all available media: voice, text message and e-mail.
Today, that system is known as Code Purple, and it is used to communicate with students during any emergency situation on campus.
When students register for school, they are automatically enrolled to participate in Code Purple. However, enrollment only uses the information students provide in their online accounts.
In many cases, students use phone numbers other than their cell phone numbers when registering. Students are then unable to receive notifications via text messaging, which, according to campus police, is the most important aspect of Code Purple.
“We want everyone to put their cell phones in the system so we can get the messages out,” said Michael Davies, a lieutenant in the WSU police department. “In a disaster, when people are really going to need information, everyone is already on their cell phones trying to contact others to let them know they’re OK. The towers and the voice data lines shut down. You get that tone notifying you that all the lines are currently busy. But for whatever reason, the text messaging will still go through.”
Currently, only about 30 percent of students are signed up to receive Code Purple notifications through text messaging, according to LeBlanc.
LeBlanc also said students shouldn’t hesitate to enroll with Code Purple out of fear of receiving advertising or soliciting text messages.
“Emergency management is about planning for all types of disasters,” LeBlanc said. “This system needs to be a system that will be used for nothing but emergency notifications. We don’t want it to turn into a ‘cry wolf’ system.”
Code Purple isn’t a flawless system, though. The most recent use of Code Purple was a result of last December’s wind storm. An emergency notification instructed students to shelter in place, and a message sent later said campus would be closed for most of the day.
Some students criticized the notifications, saying the messages were unclear. Additionally, some students were concerned about final exams scheduled during the Code Purple.
Stephanie Jerome, a WSU senior, was riding the bus to campus when people received the first Code Purple message.
“The initial message people received on the bus was that students were encouraged to stay inside the buildings on campus,” Jerome said. “It didn’t say anything about class being cancelled or anything like that. It wasn’t until I got to campus that I realized all of the doors were locked.”
Since the wind storm, WSU police have evaluated how, in the future, Code Purple can be more effective in its efforts to keep students safe.
“You’ll see that we’re going to be a little bit quicker in getting the message out,” LeBlanc said. “We also need to be a little bit clearer on whether campus is closed or temporarily suspended until the event subsides.”
Regardless of weaknesses, though, LeBlanc said all students should register their cell phones with Code Purple, and, when an emergency notification is issued, follow any directions they receive.
“If we put out a Code Purple message, students should follow the directions in that message until they’re told otherwise,” LeBlanc said. “The more students we can get in the system with their cellular devices, the safer it’s going to be for everyone.”
To add a cell phone to their Code Purple information, students should log into their eWeber portal at www.weber.edu.