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Inside UW Alert and UW Advisory messages

In the past few months, the University of Washington has added more than 47,000 student phone numbers to the UW Alert system, so that more people will receive a text message when an emergency happens on or near campus in Seattle, Bothell and Tacoma. If you are one of those students, welcome!

With so many students receiving their first UW Alert texts, here’s a primer on why, how and when the University sends out UW Alert and UW Advisory messages.

When does the UW send a UW Alert or UW Advisory message?

A UW Alert message is sent when we have reliable information about an emergency – a situation that poses an immediate potential threat to the health and safety of the UW community on or near campus.

Incidents that prompt an alert message could include an active shooter, other violent crimes or severe weather.

A UW Advisory gets sent the same way, but is used to make the community aware of a significant situation that does not pose an immediate threat to health and safety, but could be disruptive. These could include power outages, phone outages that could affect 911 service and suspended campus operations.

It is important to note that UW must have reliable information about such an incident before issuing a UW Alert or UW Advisory. Often, that means working with other law enforcement or fire department partners. For the UW campus in Seattle, UW spaces are patrolled by UWPD, while the neighborhoods around campus are patrolled by the Seattle Police Department. At UW Tacoma and UW Bothell, local police patrol both campuses and work in partnership with campus safety.

Who sends UW Alert messages?

Each UW campus has its own Crisis Communications Team with representatives from a variety of departments and divisions. When a potential emergency or other situation arises, that team meets by phone or video call.

For example, when Seattle Police received a report of shots fired in the 1600 block of NE 50th Street on April 16, UW Police heard the call and immediately convened the team. Fourteen members of the UW Crisis Communications Team joined a conference call within 60 seconds.

The chair of the team, in collaboration with the team members, quickly reviews event details and decides if a message will be sent. The chair (or the backup) writes the message, which is shared via email, text message, on social media, UW’s website and on the UW Alert blog for each campus. Check out the UW Alert blogs for Seattle, Tacoma and Bothell.

Once the team has reliable information these messages can be issued in a matter of minutes. An important note: If there is credible information about an active shooter, a UW Alert can be sent immediately by UWPD before the full team convenes for a call.

In Seattle, the team includes members from the UW Police Department, Communications, Campus Community Safety, UW Emergency Management, Environmental Health & Safety, Housing & Food Services, UW-IT and UW Medicine, with liaisons from UW Bothell and UW Tacoma. For UW Bothell and UW Tacoma, the teams look similar and are captained by the Campus Safety leads.

What does the Crisis Communications Team consider when deciding whether to send an alert?

UW is required by federal law (the Clery Act) to quickly share information about serious incidents that pose an immediate threat to the campus community when those crimes happen on campus or on property near campus.

The Crisis Communications Team considers sending alerts or advisories for incidents that happen on campus or within several blocks surrounding each UW property. At UW in Seattle, the team typically looks at incidents within about a five block radius of campus.

The Crisis Communications Team considers several factors before issuing a UW Alert or UW Advisory, including verifiable information, the time passed since the incident occurred, and whether there’s a significant, urgent safety risk to students, faculty and staff that may require quick action.

When students, faculty and staff need to know about a serious crime that happened on or near campus, but no immediate action is needed or too much time has passed to make a UW Alert message useful, the University of Washington Police Department will inform campus via email in what’s called a Notification of Criminal Incident. For example, a recent notification let students know about gunshots fired between University Way NE and 15th Ave. NE. No one was hurt.

It’s a lot to consider, and the team must quickly reach a decision about whether or not to issue a UW Alert or UW Advisory, often with incomplete initial information. If an alert or advisory is sent, the team will often post updates to the UW Alert blog, if they are available, and will generally send a final, closing update to let the campus community know that the immediate threat has ended.

What information is included in suspect descriptions?

When a reliable description of the person or people involved in a reported crime is available, it will be included in the UW Alert message or UW Alert blog. If a suspect photo is available and after consultation with Seattle police, that will be posted on the blog. Suspect descriptions usually do not include race because historically they’ve proven inconsistent and unreliable. Also, research shows that the inclusion of race does not increase the likelihood a suspect will be identified and can do more harm than good.¹

¹Fa-Kaji, Naomi M.; Cheng, Shannon K.; and Hebl, Mikki R. (2019) “The Impact of Suspect Descriptions in University Crime Reports on Racial Bias,” Personnel Assessment and Decisions: Number 5 : Iss. 2 , Article 12.

Is your UW Alert contact information correct?

Students and employees should check their UW Alert accounts regularly (the beginning and end of the academic year is a good time) to make sure your contact information is correct. You can add up to three cell phone numbers and five email addresses, including contact info for family members and friends who want to receive alerts. Remember to select the campuses you want notifications from.

Learn more

For more information about UW Alerts and to update your account, visit the UW Alert webpage.