No concrete formula for what qualifies as emergency for FSU alert system

TEXT ALERT: Ferris DPS Director Bruce Borkovich is the one who dicides if and when an emergency alert text message is sent to students and staff during emergencies. (Pioneer graphic)

TEXT ALERT: Ferris DPS Director Bruce Borkovich is the one who decides if and when an emergency alert text message is sent to students and staff during emergencies. (Pioneer graphic)

BIG RAPIDS —When an emergency strikes on or around campus, it is ultimately up to Ferris State University Director of Public Safety Bruce Borkovich to decide if and when an emergency alert is sent via text to notify students.

That’s what happened in February, when police were searching for a suspect who shot a Ferris student at Venlo Place Apartments. As the situation unfolded, Borkovich made the call to begin dispersing alerts.

“That wasn’t on campus. However, I had a responsibility to inform students that the shooting happened and nobody was arrested right away,” Borkovich explained. “I have a responsibility to warn this campus community and say ‘Here is what happened, here’s what you need to do and here’s where you go for more information.’ ”

The university’s alert system is a method of communicating timely alerts and any potential dangers to the campus community and is required by law as part of the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990, also known as the CLERY Act.

While a vast number of texts sent out by the Ferris State University text alert system are related to weather, the system was utilized many times in the 2013-14 academic year to disseminate emergency messages.

According to Ferris records obtained by the Pioneer, five alerts were sent out regarding the search and eventual arrest for the shooter, DeCory Downing. The first was sent at 7:16 a.m. on Feb. 1, alerting campus a shooter was being sought, and the last was at 1:04 a.m. on Feb. 2, stating a suspect had been arrested.

The system also was used to send two text messages regarding the search for a stabbing suspect a few weeks after the shooting incident.

Michael McKay, FSU safety coordinator, said the university has been using text message alerts for at least five years. The messages are a fast, easy way to get out information to mass amounts of people because nearly everyone carries a cellphone.

“If someone is in peril or there is danger and we need to get it out there fast, that’s the way to do it,” McKay said. “Whether it’s late at night or early morning, people have their phones and will get the message right away.”

Ferris’ campus emergency notification policy states that Borkovich should be first in line to make the decision and be informed of any potential incident that could require an emergency notification, but a chain of command is in place if he cannot be reached.

The policy requires the message be a brief description of the incident, give an action suggestion to the recipients (such as evacuate), direct recipients toward additional information and should only be one to two lines in length.

Examples listed as constituting an emergency would include, but are not limited to; an approaching tornado, a gas leak or other environmental hazard, terrorist incident, armed intruder or active shooter, rioting, sexual assault/assailant not in custody and a fire or bomb threat/explosion.

Determining what constitutes an alert is a “judgment call,” Borkovich said.

“There’s no matrix,” he said. “We can’t set it up and say ‘This, this and this equals this, so we have to send one.’ It’s a judgment call that comes from my desk, so I’m going to assess whatever is going on and make a determination.”

On April 21, a “works” bomb, a homemade explosive made with common household cleaner, was placed near property on Ferris’ campus, according to court documents.

Two men were charged with the crime in May. However, Ferris State University did not release any information about the incident either at the time the explosive was found or when the men were charged.

Borkovich did not feel this situation warranted an alert.

“When we have someone in custody there is no need for the alert,” he said. “The issue of the bomb was resolved and was no longer a danger. That’s what I have to look at.”

Aside from emergency alerts, Borkovich can send out messages known as timely warnings. An example of this would be if a series of car break-ins were happening.

“In that case, we would have to alert campus and talk about precautions people should be taking,” he said. “We don’t do this to scare people. We do this to communicate and give people lots of information to help them be safe and feel safer.”

Students, faculty and staff at Ferris can sign up for the text alerts, but it is not available to the general public. Campaigns at orientation and throughout the year pushing registration for the system have been successful, McKay said.

“Right now 25 percent of everyone in our system has a mobile number registered to receive alerts,” McKay said. “We want to keep increasing that number and will continue efforts to spread the word.”

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Posted by Emily Grove

Emily is the Pioneer and Herald Review crime and court reporter, covering crime in both Mecosta and Osceola counties. She can be reached by e-mail at emily@pioneergroup.com or by phone at (231) 592-8362.

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