Schools adopt emergency communications post-Virginia Tech tragedy

But don't expect technology to solve all problems, officials warn

The deadly shootings of 32 people by a lone gunman at Virginia Tech one year ago galvanized college campuses nationwide, leading to a surge in new mass emergency communications purchases -- especially wireless text messaging technologies.

University police and IT and communications professionals from around the nation said in recent interviews that the killings of Virginia Tech students and faculty on the campus by gunman Seung-Hui Cho led to a buying spree of new communications technologies and services. The goal was to bolster the capabilities of existing e-mail and voice mail systems, as well as outdoor sirens.

The Virginia Tech shootings "heightened our awareness" of additional ways to disseminate crucial information -- including the use of text messaging because of its popularity with college students, said Corrine Hoch, president-elect of The Association of Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA) and an IT professional at Columbia University in New York. "A flurry of activity has ensued" in the past year, she added, with both large and small colleges evaluating their emergency communications needs.

Virginia Tech was already in the process of finding a text messaging system when the shooting occurred; that system launched last July as "VT Alerts," Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said. The campus already had a number of warning systems in place a year ago, including a way to push out thousands of voice mail messages to campus phones and e-mails to computers, as well as outdoor sirens for tornado warnings and other severe weather, he said.

VT Alerts, a system provided by National Notification Network has not been used for a real emergency, but has functioned well in three tests, Owczarski said. So far, about half of the faculty and staff, or more than 20,000 subscribers, have subscribed to the free VT Alerts service, he said.

The system will send out a text alert, instant message, e-mail or make a phone call to as many as three devices selected by the subscriber. The hosted service is expected to cost the university about US$200,000 over three years, Owczarski said.

In explaining the move, Owczarski said that universities need multiple forms of communications for emergencies "to meet the diverse needs of an increasingly mobile community" and to provide redundancy. While text messaging might be popular with younger audiences, he said it takes about 30 minutes to send all the text messages to more than 20,000 subscribers; an e-mail blast can go out to 36,000 addresses in just three minutes.

Shortly after the Virginia Tech killings, the value of having multiple emergency notification channels available became clear. Students sitting in a class where no land-line phone is available might also be told by a professor to keep wireless devices off, college officials said. And campus police have long known that students sometimes go for hours or even days without checking e-mail or a Web site on a laptop or desktop computer.

"After Virginia Tech, colleges everywhere re-prioritized the way they communicate emergencies," said Gary Margolis, chief of police at the University of Vermont. As a consequence of that interest, he noted, "every systems vendor and his brother became a mass communications vendor -- even some who had only been in the business seven days."

At the University of Vermont, a new emergency notification system from MIR3 was activated about two months ago, Margolis said. While MIR3 was fairly new to university customers, it had a long history of providing notification services to large corporations.

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