By Jess Faulk
As a Student Affairs professional in Boston, I lived through one of the most emotionally and physically exhausting weeks I could imagine. The bookends of the week were Monday’s Boston Marathon explosions, and then Friday’s city-wide “shelter in place” (aka lockdown) and killing and capture of the suspects. This is never something you can can fully prepare for, but when tragedy does strike you feel very fortunate for systems and technology you have in place to help you manage the crisis.
All week, I have been reflecting on the tools we have used, both to communicate among each other, but also more importantly those used by our students to communicate with their friends and loved ones. I’d like to share a few of technologies that I feel have been indispensable this week.
Camera and Video Phones
Thanks to the ubiquitous nature of smart phones, investigators had access to thousands of photo and video files. Following tips from witnesses, they were able to pour through this overwhelming volume of data and identify several photos and videos of the bombing suspects. It’s amazing to me that anyone in the crowd might have a photo or video that leads to identifying those responsible.
Texts/Text Alerts/Phone Alerts
Shortly after the explosions on Monday, Boston news sources began pushing out important information about safety measures and street closures. Texts, email and phone alerts were used by Universities to communicate these updates with students. Cell phones became useless as everyone tried to call from and to Boston to check on loved ones. Until cell phone lines cleared up, texting became the most expedient way to communicate with the Resident Director (RD) on duty, my family and friends, and the Campus Emergency Response Team. This made me reflect on our need to come up with separate emergency plans in case of complete cell phone outages. Do you have plans in place for communicating via home phone? Office phones? Walkie Talkie?
On Friday, I awoke to a phone alert that Boston and several surrounding towns were on “shelter in place” alert because police were hunting down the 2 suspects. These phone alerts allow us to quickly respond to incidents as they are happening.
Facebook & Twitter
I was extremely grateful these technologies were available. They did not exist when 9/11 happened. Back then you couldn’t message your entire community with one post to let everyone know you were okay. In my first official email communication to the Simmons residential community, I suggested all students post status messages on Facebook and Twitter to let loved ones know they were safe. While we certainly received some concerned parent phone calls after the explosion, and during the manhunt, we received many fewer calls because these communication tools were available.
Opportunities for support also popped up all over Facebook as the week progressed, including information about community vigils and OneFund, which was set up by Boston Mayor Menino and Massachusetts Governor Patrick to support survivors.
While the explosions happened 1.4 miles from the Simmons College campus, we knew that many of our students could potentially have been hurt or killed in the blast. The Boston Marathon coincides with Patriots’ Day a statewide holiday. Therefore, thousands of students from Boston’s 53 colleges and universities have the day off and chose to line up along the Marathon route to cheer on the runners. Some Simmons students go the extra mile and volunteer at the finish line and in the medical tents. Several of our student life staff were also running in the race.
As soon as we were able coordinate communication, each RD sent an email to the students in their building and asked everyone in their building to check in either in person or via email. We were adamant in tracking down every student, whether physically on campus or off. Many students were at home with their families because of the long weekend. By the end of the day, RDs were able to confirm they checked in with 99% of the students in their buildings. RDs entered all of this data onto a shared Google doc spreadsheet. I shared the Google doc with the Emergency Response team, Dean’s office, and ResStaff so everyone had access to real-time head counts.
When parents or friends called in to check on a student, we were able to check the Google doc to confirm that we had heard from the student and they were safe. Not only was this extremely useful in verifying that our students had all (thank goodness) survived the blasts without harm, but it also made the students FEEL extremely well taken care of. RDs reported receiving dozens of emails from residents thanking them for checking in on them.
Google doc spreadsheets were also used by the Boston Globe, to set up an “I have a place to stay” document for the thousands of Boston Marathon runners who could not go back to their Back Bay hotels immediately following the blasts. Google also set up a “Boston Marathon Explosions Person Finder.”
For more information on how how technology and social media played an important role in supporting the Boston Marathon investigations, check out the stories below:
- Police, citizens and technology factor into Boston bombing probe, Washington Post
- Social media aids first responders and grieving public after bombing, NextGov