The fuzziness around the definition of what would be considered “timely” with regard to a warning prompted a legislative change in 2008, when the Clery Act was amended to include an additional responsibility for a more instantaneous emergency notification whenever a school has reason to believe that there is any imminent threat to the health and safety of students on campus. Situations meriting a notification might include chemical spills or even concerns about an infectious disease, in addition to crimes and active shooters.
Emergency notifications must be issued immediately even if all of the facts of the case are not yet gathered. The objective is to let people in and around the campus know that they may be in danger. “Immediate” is defined as meaning “as soon as law enforcement officers can confirm the threat,” says Owczarski.
The notification should be made by the police department as soon as possible after it responds to a call and confirms that there is a potentially threatening situation. When both an emergency notification and a timely warning would apply (Clery-reportable crimes, for example), the DOE has stated that a redundant timely warning is not necessary in addition to the emergency notification.
Conversely, when emergency notifications are not needed, the subsequent “timely warning” is still required under the law and should be issued after the school or police gather basic information. Schools have up to 48 hours to do that, but Owczarski says few, if any, institutions would wait that long today.
“The landscape has changed,” says Owczarski. “[I]n light of what happened five years ago, colleges and universities are far more likely to communicate first, think and respond second.”
Virginia Tech’s VT Alert system has about 10 mechanisms for disseminating information (more on these ahead). Each has its application. For example, outdoor sirens might be used for tornado warnings, but they would not likely be used in a timely-warning situation.