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Critical UC Davis campus alert system failed during Corona shooting, officials say

See police investigate the scene where a Davis officer was shot and killed

Natalie Corona, a Davis police officer, was shot and killed after responding to a car crash on Jan. 10, 2019.
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Natalie Corona, a Davis police officer, was shot and killed after responding to a car crash on Jan. 10, 2019.

A critical emergency alert system designed to warn UC Davis students and staff failed to fully notify the campus until more than an hour after Davis police Officer Natalie Corona was shot and killed blocks from the university, officials announced, calling the breakdown “unacceptable.”

The WarnMe-Aggie Alert sends text and email messages to UC Davis students and staff and is designed to alert 70,000 people. But the system initially notified only a fraction of those people about the events unfolding less than a mile from the campus and locked campus public safety officials out of some notification lists.

“The system failure we saw on January 10 was unacceptable and we will take all necessary measures to ensure 100 percent performance in the future,” said UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May in a statement Tuesday.

The chancellor’s downtown Davis residence is also just blocks away from where the 22-year-old Corona was gunned down and where others were sent fleeing when Kevin Limbaugh opened fire from his bicycle as the rookie officer responded to a traffic stop.

A manhunt for Corona’s killer stretched across the city’s downtown and ended hours later in a standoff with law enforcement when Limbaugh killed himself inside his E Street residence. May was out of town at the time of the deadly incident, said campus officials Wednesday.

UC Davis police sent out a pair of alerts 18 minutes apart in the frantic moments after the rampage. A 7:28 p.m. email and text swarm warned of a suspect at large. The second, at 7:46 p.m., told people to shelter in place. Only 20,000 people initially received the orders.

UC Davis Police Chief Joseph Farrow described those early moments and the “deep concerns” he and other public safety officials had when they learned the Warn-Me system wasn’t completing its job. Eight minutes into the call, Farrow and campus safety officials activated the warning system, put the campus on high alert and soon after moved his officers to the campus’ borders with Davis to find if Limbaugh was headed toward the university.

“Emotions are running high. We had to get the system out to people so they don’t walk into chaos. We need to get into that system now,” Farrow said. “We went about looking for the individual, but we had deep concerns when (Warn-Me) didn’t populate.”

Workers from Rave Mobile Safety, the Massachusetts-based mass notification firm that developed the system. were able to troubleshoot the problem, but the first messages to the entire campus population weren’t sent until 8:45 p.m., more than an hour after the initial 7:28 p.m. alerts, UC Davis officials said.

Farrow called the time gap “a significant delay,” but said those who did receive the initial alert on and off campus and in local media quickly and widely shared the information, while campus officials worked with student affairs representatives to notify dining halls and other potentially vulnerable spaces.

“The good part is that the university (community) started notifying themselves,” Farrow said. “Even though there was a glitch in the system, they took it upon themselves. The community took care of the community.”

Rave officials, whose warning system had been in place at UC Davis since 2014 without incident, are expected to sit with campus leaders in Davis on Jan. 22 to explain what went wrong and how they intend to put it right.

“The larger intent of our communication is about accountability and responsibility for the issue with the end result being that it never happens again,” said Clement Stokes, UC Davis’ emergency management director. “I’m looking at what we can do better to ensure that this capability is ready to be used when necessary.”

Rave officials said the problem centers on errors in the system that updates its database of university contacts nightly. Information for notification lists are culled from payroll and other lists then separated into lists of faculty, students, staff and others, campus officials said.

In a Jan. 14 letter to university officials, Rave’s chief technology officer, Brett Marceau, said the work to correct that process is its engineers’ “top priority” adding Rave took “full responsibility” for the system’s failure to notify all 70,000 people in the alert’s system and “regrets the position into which it put the university.”

Marceau continued that Rave has “identified and corrected the problem and is working to put additional measures in place to prevent a recurrence.”

Farrow hopes so. He will be among the campus leaders meeting with Rave officials next week.

“As police chief, it’s my responsibility to ensure the safety and security of the people who study, work, teach and research here,” he said. “I would tell them there’s an issue that you need to be aware of. That’s our lifeline.”

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