Over a period of several months in 2012, the higher education world was rocked by a rash of bomb threats called in to colleges and universities across the United States, necessitating mass evacuations and quick thinking from safety officials.
When a threat was made against Texas A&M University that October, the university was ready, recalls Director of Crisis Communications Monica Martinez, who was serving as A&M’s emergency management coordinator at the time. Safety personnel quickly sent out a message via the Code Maroon emergency alert system, directing all students, faculty and staff to leave campus immediately — on foot, if possible, to avoid the kinds of traffic jams that had slowed evacuations at other universities.
All in all, Martinez said, the process went remarkably well, and crews were soon able to start searching each building for potential threats: “People listened to the Code Maroon, we were able to give regular updates about what was going on, and then they were able to return to campus later that day,” she said.
As Martinez notes, the 2012 evacuation is just one stand-out example of why a fast and effective emergency alert system is a necessity for Texas A&M, which is one of the largest universities in the nation both in terms of physical size and student population.
Whether there’s a tornado on the horizon or an active shooter in the area, she said the teams behind Code Maroon work hard to make sure all Aggies get the information they need in times of crisis, be it on their phones, through their computers or over campus speaker systems.
“We want to keep our campus population informed about what’s going on so that they can take the appropriate action,” Martinez said.
Why Code Maroon?
While colleges and universities have long been required by law to have some form of emergency notification system in place, most institutions relied on rudimentary, email-based systems through the mid-2000s, said Chris Meyer, former associate vice president for safety and security. The need for faster, more robust systems was brought into sharp focus by the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, which left 33 dead and 23 injured.
“After Virginia Tech, universities were on the hunt for a rapid notification system that was more effective and faster than an email distribution,” Meyer said.
Texas A&M quickly partnered with an outside vendor to bring such a system to Aggieland, and within a couple of months, the first iteration of Code Maroon was born — though it wouldn’t actually be called Code Maroon until around 2008, Meyer said.
Since then, A&M officials have continuously sought to upgrade and expand the system, switching vendors in 2010 and again in 2020 to make sure the university has the best tools at its disposal.
Today, whenever there’s a potential threat to the safety and security of the campus community, a Code Maroon message can be sent out in mere moments by the University Police Department or other public safety personnel. In order to reach as many people as possible, the alerts go out via text, email, social media, speaker systems, and a variety of other communications channels including the official Code Maroon app.
To ensure every alert is taken seriously, Martinez said Code Maroon is strictly reserved for potentially life-threatening situations on or around the Texas A&M campus. Information about less serious or less urgent situations will be conveyed through other means.
“We’re in an era where there’s so much information being broadcast, emailed, put in our face all the time,” Martinez said. “And so we try to temper how often we send messages and keep them just focused on life safety so that we don’t get ignored at the time of an emergency.”
Partly due to text message character limits, each Code Maroon alert is short and succinct, containing the most important information and directions for a given situation. Recipients are encouraged to click the link to Texas A&M’s emergency information site for additional details.
That site also contains links to a series of emergency procedure pages, offering practical guidance for a wide variety of hazardous situations on campus. Martinez recommends everyone take some time to familiarize themselves with these procedures.
“Pay attention when you get a Code Maroon message,” she said. “And prepare yourself ahead of time on what to do in different types of emergencies.”
In order to make sure the system is always working when it’s needed, Texas A&M IT personnel closely monitor each use of Code Maroon, including the monthly test deployments, to make sure the alerts are being received across all channels.
“There’s a lot of technology involved, and we have a great deal of automated equipment and software that we have developed to monitor the various systems to give us basically a heartbeat to make sure things are running and working well,” said Marlin Crouse, a software applications developer in the Division of IT.
Plenty of manual monitoring is involved too, said IT manager Tracy Persky: “We have a small group of people that will sit together on a Zoom call and watch the channels that we can.”
Persky and Crouse said they’re always looking for ways to continue expanding and improving the system. For instance, the Code Maroon app is a relatively recent addition — one they said is particularly useful not only for students but for parents or visitors who want to receive up-to-date campus safety information.
“Guests coming into town for football games can now download the mobile app to get the alerts,” said Persky.
Ultimately, Meyer said, the more ways Code Maroon can reach people, the more likely those people are to receive timely information that might save their lives.
“It’s robust technology and it’s such a redundant set of technologies that help give you a lot of confidence,” he said, “that even if something were to go wrong on one of the delivery channels, we’re still going to be getting out the word via many modalities, and people are going to find out what they need to know.”