Orange County

It took almost an hour for UNC to notify students of firebombing. Was that too long?

From middle, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC General Counsel Mark Merritt and UNC Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Safety Derek Kemp confer as authorities investigate an explosion Thursday afternoon at the Davie Poplar.
From middle, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC General Counsel Mark Merritt and UNC Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Safety Derek Kemp confer as authorities investigate an explosion Thursday afternoon at the Davie Poplar. The Herald-Sun

As far as UNC-Chapel Hill officials are concerned, the Alert Carolina electronic safety-notice system worked as intended Thursday after an apparent firebomb went off at the base of the Davie Poplar.

But as far as at least one student is concerned, the nearly one-hour delay between the explosion and the posting of a notice about the incident on the Alert Carolina web site illustrates that it’s not something people can count on to give real-time warning of a safety threat.

“Obviously, this system is very flawed,” and among students “the joke is if we waited on Alert Carolina to know when to go inside, we’d all be dead,” said Davis Dawson, a sophomore economics major from Concord.

Dawson was one of several people to either Tweet or email complaints about the system after Thursday’s bombing, which injured astronomy and physics professor Dan Reichart and scorched the south side of the Davie Poplar, an iconic McCorkle Place tree that’s older than the university itself.

A former UNC-CH biology student, Joshua Daniel Edwards, 24, has been in custody since the incident and was taken to UNC Hospitals for a mental evaluation. He could face arson or other criminal charges.

Dawson was among the students who saw authorities capture Edwards outside South Building after the the detonation. He has no quarrel with the way campus police and other emergency responders dealt with matters at the scene, and said it’s also clear in retrospect that it “wasn’t that severe a safety event.”

“Public safety, Chapel Hill police, Carrboro police and the fire department handled it spectacularly,” he said.

But the incident nonetheless tested Alert Carolina’s protocols, and in using the system officials quite obviously judged that they only needed to issue an “informational notification” about a matter they had under control.

The protocol urges warnings up and and including the use of a campus siren system if there’s “a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety” of people on campus. The lower, information-level notice is used for situations under control that, for example, were so public that they’re “likely to generate significant interest across the campus community.”

Thursday’s incident was certainly highly public, given that it began on McCorkle Place a hundred yards or so from the Old Well and South Building and that many students either it saw it, saw the arrest or heard the perpetrator yell things like “Hail, Satan,” after the explosion.

The system protocol nonetheless allows campus authorities to use a great deal of professional discretion in deciding what level of alert to issue.

“An alert is only one part of ensuring campus safety,” university spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said. “In this instance, safety personnel were on the scene within minutes of the incident.”

Moreover, in deciding on a response, “we rely on the assessment of officers on the scene,” and in any case use the sirens only for incidents on campus, she said.

That alluded to the fact that the incident had near-simultaneous repercussions off campus. Carrboro police, acting on a tip from UNC officials, checked out the possibility that a bomb was in a car parked off West Weaver Street, and used an explosive of their own to open the vehicle’s trunk. Meanwhile, police confronted a man outside the Franklin Street post office who was wearing what initial reports suggested was improvised body armor but on closer inspection was baseball gear.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said the man at the post office was “a local guy who is known to us.” Officers backed off after they saw “he was not a threat and not associated with the event” on campus.

For Dawson, all of that underscores that Thursday’s was a complex, fast-moving situation. Bottom line is that “an explosive device has gone off, there’s a guy running around naked, there’s a class change, the campus is very active,” he said. “I may not know a whole lot about the nature of it and don’t want to scare people, but that’s a big deal. It wasn’t like a call that someone is shooting off fireworks.”

Moreover, among students, Alert Carolina is regarded as “anything but timely,” he said, adding that he believes if ever there “was a more severe safety situation on campus, Alert Carolina has not proven itself to be capable of properly alerting the public.”

Peters Denny said campus officials “are constantly reviewing our efforts” and adjusting plans accordingly, and will “do so for this event as well.”

UNC officials have fielded complaints about Alert Carolina before, notably in the summer of 2015 when they were slow to provide an explanatory email following up on a decision to sound the sirens because two armed robberies had happened on campus.

That incident, and what Chancellor Carol Folt termed later termed a “completely unacceptable” failure on the explanation front, eventually prompted an joint apology from two vice chancellors and the chief of the campus police, Jeff McCracken.

“Even if we’re successful 99 times out of 100, that extra one is really important,” Folt said after the 2015 incident.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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