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Gun scare at UCI serves as test for text-alert system

Safety officials now think the man reported to be carrying a rifle on campus may have been a student with a paintball gun. About 20,000 subscribers received text alerts of the potential danger.

May 21, 2009|Tony Barboza and Paloma Esquivel

Students and teachers at UC Irvine were shaken Wednesday when officials sent out a campus alert saying they were responding to reports of a camouflaged man with a rifle on campus, a report that was later downgraded when police determined that it was probably just a student carrying a paintball gun.

UC Irvine has a campus paintball team that meets for practice Wednesday evenings, but a past team vice president said that the group doesn't allow members to carry paintball guns on campus and that members never wear camouflage.

After the initial panic subsided, the incident appeared to have served as a test of the campus emergency text-message alert system, which -- like many across the country -- was set up after the Virginia Tech shootings as an ultra-quick way to alert students to potentially dangerous situations.

Campus police continued to look for a student who was identified by the original tipster through a Facebook photo.

Police received a phone call about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday reporting a suspicious person in beige camouflage possibly carrying a firearm walking south from Mesa Drive toward the campus, according to a statement from the university.

Less than two hours later, after news of the tip spread quickly across campus via the university's zotAlert texting system and Twitter, police said they had detained a student near the campus student center. But he was not the person identified in the photo and was soon released, said campus Chief of Police Paul Henisey.

There were no lockdowns or evacuations on campus, university spokesman Tom Vasich said.

Some students, though, reported ducking into buildings or staying off walking paths. And there were voluntary lockdowns in some residential communities, such as Vista del Campo Norte, where students were told to stay indoors and lock all windows and doors.

The university community was alerted to the potential threat by the campuswide text-messaging system known as zotAlert, which goes out to about 20,000 subscribers.

The zotAlert system was set up a few months after the Virginia Tech shootings as a way to get word out in an emergency situation. Other campuses across the country, including UCLA, have similar systems.

Belinda Lau, 21, a junior, was in music class when a friend showed her the text message. The instructor locked the doors for an hour until class was over, then students left through the back.

"I was scared at the moment . . . now I feel like it's kind of silly," she said.

Reports also spread through campus through hundreds of messages on the microblogging site Twitter, with students sending tweets about helicopters hovering above campus, swarms of police and apparent lockdowns.

Vasich, the university spokesman, said the text messages were successful.

"Once the message goes out, it spreads pretty quickly," he said. "It works."

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

Times staff writer My-Thuan Tran contributed to this report.

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