Jul 05 2007

Virginia Tech Expands Emergency Alert System

Virginia Tech is joining the parade of higher education institutions in beefing up its campus notification systems.

A school spokesman says the system announced June 21 is neither in reaction to the April 16 shootings on campus -- an incident that brought notification systems into the forefront at many institutions -- nor an admission that Virginia Tech's notification system was inadequate on the day of the tragedy. In the wake of the shootings, many higher ed institutions said they were looking at beefing up their notification systems.

Even before the upgrade, the university had the means to communicate with its community. It could send 36,000 e-mail messages — to all vt.edu accounts — in a matter of seconds. It could distribute alerts via phone, Web site, a campus hotline, loudspeakers and the media. It was even in the process of expanding its emergency notification infrastructure when the shootings occurred.

“We have a pretty good system in place, but we recognize that technology continues to evolve,” Owczarski says.

The new system gives Virginia Tech the ability to reach more people. Previously, the university could send messages only to university-run platforms — e-mail to vt.edu accounts and voice mail to the 5,000 campus phones. The new system can send text and voice messages to communication platforms beyond the university’s infrastructure.

A professor, for instance, could receive an instant message on her MSN Messenger account; a student could get an e-mail sent to an account he uses more frequently than his vt.edu address; a parent could be notified by mobile phone; or a staff member could receive a voice mail at his home phone number.

People can register their phone numbers and addresses on the Virginia Tech Web site. The university plans to have the system fully operational by Aug. 20, when fall classes start.

Besides expanding its notification system, Virginia Tech named John Beach as the university’s interim director of emergency management. Owczarski says the new position was also created before the April 16 shootings. The position was funded and posted in 2006, and the search was already under way during the shootings.

“Our lives changed on April 16,” he says. “Something like this has never happened on a college campus before, and hopefully it never will again.”