False 'active shooter' alerts cause chaos, danger

In early February, Montgomery College accidentally sent a text message warning of an active shooter to 9,000 cellphones subscribed to the Maryland school’s emergency alert system. It was a false alarm, the latest example of human error triggering one of the most terrifying notifications a campus community could receive.

The formula is familiar: An employee at a large institution — often a college or university, required by the Clery Act to issue emergency notifications for certain incidents — hits the wrong button while testing or tinkering with that institution’s alert system, causing thousands of phones to buzz and many more people to panic until a correction is issued. Sometimes the delay is long enough for outside law enforcement to arrive.


Mistakes in this mold don’t occur often, but their frequency ought to raise concern. In January, at Lower Columbia College in Washington state, an IT department employee sent an active shooter alert by accident while installing hardware. Human error was also behind active shooter alerts disseminated by Hennepin Technical College in Minnesota in September and UNC Wilmington and the University of Texas at Tyler in February 2017. Same goes for active shooter alert errors at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, University of Illinois and Michigan State University in the recent years preceding.

Colleges have company. Two high schools in Lexington, Ky., went on lockdown Feb. 2 when an intruder alert message was sent in error during a training exercise.


Erroneous warnings erode a community’s confidence in public safety and other emergency management personnel who must maintain credibility to ensure their crisis and risk communication efforts are effective in a disaster. Few communication mistakes do greater damage than an active shooter-related gaffe. (False ballistic missile alert is in a tier of its own.) And to be clear, what’s at issue here is messages sent purely by accident, not messages sent based on limited information later deemed unfounded.

But now, with school systems considering increased security measures in response to the horrific shooting in Parkland, Fla., and President Donald Trump floating the idea of arming teachers, the potential consequences of incident alert accidents are even more worrisome.

Increased security means more trained public safety personnel capable of reacting immediately to reports of an active shooter on school grounds. The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates that between 14,000 and 20,000 resource officers are currently in service nationwide. Proposals for additional “SROs” and traditional law enforcement to bolster security are popping up across the country, at schools in Cattaraugus County (New York), Richmond and Fairfax County (Virginia), Green Bay (Wisconsin) and Mahwah (New Jersey), among others. The Denton County, Texas, sheriff reminded his deputies in a Feb. 27 memo that they are expected to take immediate action in an active shooter situation.

Law enforcement presence is a vital element of school safety, but it introduces some new risk in chaotic incidents like active shooter situations. On the morning of the Parkland attack, a Good Samaritan in Amarillo, Texas, was shot by police after he confronted a man threatening churchgoers with a gun and wrestled the gun away. It’s likely officers mistook him for the intruder. Schools absolutely cannot risk something similar happening in the confusion that follows an active shooter message sent by mistake.

Arming teachers is a far more problematic source of new risk in this scenario. At least eight states already allow teachers to carry guns on K-12 school grounds, accounting for hundreds of school districts; increasing that number has been widely questioned for many practical reasons. Here’s another: Carelessness as a result of inadequate controls on mass notification systems could be the reason people with limited firearms training receive an alert that portends extreme use of force. No one, especially teachers and their students, should be exposed to such preventable danger.

At least three emergency messaging vendors offer a product tailored to K-12 schools. These products will certainly gain popularity as schools explore new ways to boost security. Meantime, universities and school systems ought to prioritize process improvements that drastically reduce the potential for active shooter alert accidents.

It’s unconscionable that students and educators face any potential threats, no matter how remote. Don’t let human error be one of them.

Nick Alexopulos is director of communications at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He can be reached on Twitter at @NickAlexopulos. This article is made in a personal capacity and is independent of his affiliation with Johns Hopkins University. ​