U of O alert system a let-down during van rampage, students say

Some University of Ottawa students are demanding to know why they weren't immediately warned by administrators about a hit-and-run rampage on Wednesday.

No one was injured in the incident, but several people reported running for safety as a man in a stolen van careened through streets in the downtown campus, smashing into other vehicles before speeding away.

A 36-year-old man has been charged with multiple offences including theft of a vehicle, dangerous operation of a vehicle, failing to stop at the scene of a collision and assault.

People saw everyone running and they didn't know what was going on. Some people thought there was a shooting. - Paige Booth, SFUO president

Paige Booth, president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, witnessed the incident and said it's a "miracle" no one was hurt.

"I believe it should have triggered an alert," she said.

Instead, Booth posted her own Facebook message: "If you are on campus please stay inside I'm not sure what's going on," she warned.

Stu Mills/CBC

Several methods available

The university has several methods of issuing an alert: it can send push notifications to students who have downloaded the university's safety app, SecureUO; it can send screen alerts through a new tool called Alertus; and it can issue warnings via Twitter @uOttawaAlert or @uOttawa.

The university can also send mass emails to students and staff warning of dangers on campus.

None of those things happened until 4:32 p.m. Wednesday, about 40 minutes after police were called to the campus, when the @uOttawa account tweeted: "Campus is safe following an incident earlier this afternoon."

The university followed that tweet with more information, including links to mental health services for students and staff upset by the incident.

Student Jacob Bellfoy, 20, said that was too little, too late.

"A lot of people have been saying through social media that the response wasn't quick enough," Bellfoy said. "We're talking about an incident that could endanger the lives of student. It's kind of alarming."

"They really should have a better system. I didn't even get an email from the university email system about what was going on," said Bryanna Vanderlek, an 18-year-old music student.

"That's the university I pay a lot of money for, and just to find the university didn't give [the van incident] much attention, it's kind of upsetting," said international development student Ahmed Elgendy, also 18.

Stu Mills/CBC

Emergency protocol launched, university says

The @uOttawaAlert Twitter account, set up by the university in 2012, has only issued three messages since 2016. The most recent, on Oct. 11, 2018, was to notify students of an evacuation exercise at Morisset Hall.

University of Ottawa spokesperson Isabelle Mailloux Pulkinghorn initially told CBC Wednesday the school wouldn't comment on the matter, but sent a statement 90 minutes later.

"We understand the concerns of our students and community. It was a stressful incident for many people. Counseling services are available for those in need," it read.

According to the statement, the university did institute its "emergency response protocol" during the incident.

"We verified information with [Ottawa police] and informed our community that our campus was safe as soon as we were in a position to do so," it read.

University of Ottawa

No message, students say

According to the statement, the university did send an alert through its uoAlert safety app, but several students who had downloaded the app told CBC they never received a message on their phones.

Booth said the university should have at least followed up with an email to all students.

"In the university centre, people saw everyone running and they didn't know what was going on. Some people thought there was a shooting, so just to have that clarification that everything is safe, if they weren't able to send that alert right away, would have been sufficient."

Booth said the student federation will raise the issue with university administrators.