WASHINGTON – College and universities nationwide are reassessing their emergency communication plans and urging students to sign up for notification systems already in place following the murder of five people at Northern Illinois University last week.
The University of New Mexico,for example,planned to conduct a campus-wide emergency response drill Thursday,including a test of its text-message alert system. Across the country,administrators at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are urging students to sign up for a similar text alert system.
Companies that provide so-called mass notification systems say the number of inquiries from colleges has risen since the NIU shooting,echoing a trend sparked by the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in April.
“We had university clients before that,but once that incident happened,now everybody sort of has a mandate that this is something they need to do,” said Linda Souza,director of marketing for the National Notification Network,or 3n,a mass notification company with more than 100 clients in higher education,including Virginia Tech,which signed up after last year's shootings.
The response to the NIU shooting,which used e-mails and Web posts to alert the campus,has reinvigorated discussion about the best methods of disseminating information during emergencies.
“A lot of the colleges and universities that we're talking to,who initially made fast purchases after Virginia Tech,are now finding gaps in their systems,” especially if they operate only through a single type of communication,Souza said.
Although text messaging is often viewed as one of the most appropriate ways to reach college students perceived to ubiquitously carry cell phones,universities that bank only on text-messaging or e-mails can risk disaster,said Ara Bagdasarian,chief executive officer of Omnilert,of Leesburg,Va.
Souza,Bagdasarian and others in the mass notification business argue for a “multimodal” approach. That allows administrators to send alerts simultaneously through phone calls,e-mails,text-messages or other modes that appeal to people of different ages and technological inclinations who are best reached in different ways depending on the time of day.
Critics of such systems suggest that they could aid a shooter or intruder,but Bagdasarian dismisses those criticisms,saying the benefits largely outweigh the risks.
“The chance that the criminal can be tuned in – what if they use a [public address] system?” he said. “It's important to really push that knowledge out to the campus community as soon as you can.”
Before Virginia Tech,about 30 institutions used Omnilert's multimodal e2campus system. That number has jumped to about 500 – including the University of Memphis,Harvard University and Pennsylvania State University – and more have inquired since the NIU shooting.
The cost of multimodal systems – usually a dollar or two annually per student – can be daunting for schools like Marshall University in West Virginia. Marshall's vice president for information technology,Jan Fox,said she opted over the summer to use open-source software to institute text message alerts,saving the more than $30,000 it would cost annually to use a multimodal system.
Having the technology to get the word out helps administrators handle emergencies,but that's not all that counts,Fox said.
“You can have all the tools in the world,” she said. “If you don't have the communication plan on how you're going to handle all these things,it means nothing.”