Gun Scare Tests Alert System

At 1:26 p.m. last Wednesday, a male student in Mesa Court phoned UCI Police Department and reported seeing a man in camouflage pants with what could have been a rifle. Half an hour later, over 20,000 students, faculty and staff were alerted via the Zot Alert system of a possible gunman on campus.

Fortunately, the “gunman” was just a male student, second-year undeclared major Christopher Proffitt, with an “airsoft-type imitation weapon” who was leaving campus to engage in recreational activity and meant no harm to the UC Irvine community. The mobilization of the UCIPD, Irvine Police and a county helicopter rented for surveillance purposes combined with the rapid communication and dissemination of information by the Zot Alert system became a demonstration of campus and police response to a shooter-type incident.

The first Zot Alert was released around 2 p.m. Wednesday, half an hour after the first sighting of the student in camouflage pants with a possible rifle-sized weapon. According to UCIPD, the call was received at 1:26 p.m. by the staff of two or three on-duty policemen in the UCIPD building. This number is needed to meet the demands of a typical Wednesday afternoon, and the UCIPD needed time to assemble more officers to combat a possible threat. UCIPD requested the assistance of Irvine Police Department and a helicopter from Airborne Law Enforcement (ABLE) Services, which serves Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. At its peak, UCIPD commanded around 30 police officers, including 11 UCIPD officers, who were stationed on campus in anticipation of a possible attack.

One student who partially matched the physical description, fourth-year informatics major Matt Fritz, was detained in the Student Center and questioned. He was later released once UCIPD determined that he was not involved in the event. Then, UCIPD received a call from a student responding to the Zot Alert that led to the identification of the suspected individual. UCIPD then had the student who first reported the suspect confirm the identification of the individual by means of which UCIPD was not at liberty to divulge due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.

During the event, no official mandated lockdown (officially termed the “Stay in Place” policy) of campus property was ordered on Wednesday, which would have required an agreement between the Office of the Chancellor and UCIPD. However, some buildings were voluntarily locked down according to each building’s supervisor-level manager.

“It was a local decision made by those offices,” said Linda Bogue, the emergency management coordinator for UCI. “[Each building] made the decision on its own.”

Lt. Baltazar De La Riva of the UCIPD was also not involved in the decision to prompt voluntary lockdown and did not know when it was discussed.

“The decision was discussed, but not at my level,” De La Riva said.

De La Riva praised the Zot Alert system, especially the responses from individuals who had information that eventually led to the identification of the individual.

Bogue was also pleased with the dissemination of information from the Zot Alert system, but stressed that her office continually re-evaluates events to update UCI’s emergency information distribution.

“We learn something from every event that we have,” Bogue said. “But we have not had a chance to debrief [from Wednesday’s incident] in conversation.”

Bogue maintained that the biggest challenge was keeping up with the rapid abilities of technological advances and how to use them to keep on the leading edge and is looking at the communicative possibilities of Twitter and Facebook. The UCI Office of Communications has its own Twitter account and Facebook page, but they are specific to the office and are not featured on UCI’s home Web site.

In the meantime, Tom Vasich, spokesman for UCI, noted that UCI’s home Web site was restructured to a low-bandwidth Web site over the course of the day and updated with new information. The low-bandwidth version of the Web site cut out the complicated side-bar menus in order to allow the Web site to survive the anticipated influx of curious UCI community members looking for official updates.

At least six Zot Alert messages were sent on Wednesday pertaining to the incident, beginning with the first at 2 p.m. and ending with a concluding message at 9:08 p.m. indicating that the situation was resolved when the suspect submitted himself to the UCIPD station at around 7 p.m. after the student checked his voicemail message by UCIPD and established contact.

Some students complained about the limited nature of information in the Zot Alerts which stated the area of the first sighting, but no further update on the gunman’s possible location.

“Keep in mind that all we had was limited information,” De La Riva said. “The police department only had some information that gave us time and location [of the potential gunman]. Had we had additional information, such as the subject seen at another location, we would have included it, but we only had one report.”

De La Riva also mentioned that each message sent through the system has a character limit.

“It’s difficult to manage the event and communicate at the same time,” Bogue added. “In this day and age, it’s never going to be enough.”

Although the incident was benign, UCI stresses the mischief that can occur due to possession of threatening items on school property.

“Even these imitation firearms are illegal on campus,” Vasich said. “[Students] shouldn’t keep them in dorm rooms. People will look at you as if you’re carrying a real weapon.”

De La Riva likewise noted the importance of recognizing the similarity in appearance of airsoft guns to actual firearms.

“It’s very important for individuals using them to be cautious,” De La Riva said.

The cost for the services and resources of UCIPD, Irvine police and the ABLE helicopter will likely be significant according to De La Riva.

However, the ultimate message from UCI and UCIPD is relief that the situation did not result in any incident of violence, which can be best summarized in a statement by the Office of the Chancellor last Friday: “This event provided the campus an opportunity to test – in what fortunately turned out to be a benign situation – the effectiveness of our campus notification system.”

The statement noted that, because of the incident, a further 1,000 individuals in the UCI community have signed up for Zot Alert. This brings the total to 21,000 students, faculty and staff.

Proffitt was not charged with a crime by UCIPD, specifically because he was not brandishing the airsoft rifle in a threatening manner. Keeping an airsoft-type rifle in a dorm room, however, is a violation of university housing policy and thus the student’s actions are under review by UCI Judicial Affairs.