Jul 01 2013

Emergency Numbers: Communication Technology Is Making College Campuses Safer

When a crisis hits, campus emergency-management teams need to have the right data at their fingertips.

After the 2007 shootings on the Virginia Tech campus, officials at Marymount College in Southern California — like many other colleges and universities at the time — scrambled to put together an emergency-alert system capable of quickly notifying students, faculty and staff.

For Denise Fessenbecker, Marymount’s director of general services, it was vitally important that the contact information for the alerts be stored in the cloud rather than solely on the school’s servers.

With data stored in the cloud, Fessenbecker says, “I didn’t need to worry about power. I didn’t need to worry about the network guy being in town the day I needed it. Emergency alert is something you have to have, but you hope you can forget about it. When you need it, it needs to be ready right then, and there can’t be a hiccup.”

Boston University’s emergency-alert service provider doesn’t use the cloud but does store contact information within redundant data centers to ensure data access won’t be lost during a system failure resulting from an emergency.

“The backup scenario is, we can get the [alert] to [the service provider], and they send it out for us,” says Sean Kinneen, BU’s associate director of communication services.

Bob Howe, senior director of communications at New York City’s Fordham University, which also relies on a third-party vendor to store contact information, concurs: “The more places that the data is, the safer it is, the more likely it will be successful in an emergency.”

College Students Prefer Texting

“Hearing from students, their preferred method, by far, is text messaging,” Kineen says. “It’s hard to get them to answer the phone sometimes.”

Officials at other institutions agree that when students must be reached quickly in a crisis, text messaging trumps email, phone calls and all other forms of communication.

“The first thing I want to do is text everybody,” Fessenbecker says. “That’s how most people signed up.”

Boston University’s system allows messages to be sent across multiple platforms simultaneously. By simply checking a box, officials can get word out via email, the university’s website and a variety of social media channels at the same time a text alert is sent.

“The ultimate goal of any emergency system is to use as many modalities at the same time,” Kineen says. “You know you’re not going to reach everybody. The goal is to get the message to as many people as you can, and then word of mouth takes over.”

Should Students Opt In or Opt Out of Emergency Alerts?


The average number of text messages received per day by people between the ages of 18 and 24, compared with 14 messages a day for texters between 45 and 54.

SOURCE: Americans and text messaging,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, a project of the Pew Research Center (PDF download)

Still, a system that can push text alerts to notify students of a campus closing or a criminal on the loose isn’t much good if emergency teams don’t have students’ cell phone numbers. Until recently, students at Northern Illinois University were added to its emergency notification list only if they signed up on the university website. As a result, the list included only about 2,000 of the school’s roughly 22,000 students, says Paul Palian, director of media and public relations for the university.

When a new system was adopted last fall, officials discovered that they had a data bank with about 20,000 mobile numbers, culled from other forms, such as student registrations.

“We knew right then we had the ability to penetrate a larger portion of our campus community in the text alert system,” Palian says.

The university quickly switched to an opt-out system, in which students were added to the notification list automatically unless they specifically requested not to be.

But an opt-out system can have drawbacks, Marymount’s Fessenbecker says. For one, student contact information is sometimes out of date.

“One of the worst things you can do is have a false sense of security,” she says.

Students aren’t allowed to opt out of Boston University’s list.

“We just think it’s way too important to not require them to give us an emergency number,” Kineen says.


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