E-mail alerts may not be best bet in an emergency

Virginia Tech shootings raise questions on the effectiveness of e-mail alerts

In an emergency, is an e-mail message enough to notify people of what's happening so they can take shelter, evacuate or take other evasive action?

That's one of the questions being asked in the wake of Monday's shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech, where 32 students and faculty members were killed in two separate shooting incidents more than two hours apart. The gunman apparently killed himself, bringing the death toll to 33.

Although the first shootings occurred just before 7:15 a.m., officials at the school -- formally known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University -- didn't send out a campuswide e-mail about the incident to more than 26,000 students and faculty members until about 9:30 a.m. In that first incident, two students were killed in a dormitory, but no specific information was included in the e-mail; students were simply told there had been a shooting and urged to be "cautious" and report anything suspicious.

At the time, many students were already on campus or en route and never received word that something was amiss. The school also did not lock down the campus after the first shootings.

Just 15 minutes after that 9:30 a.m. e-mail went out, police received a 911 call reporting additional shootings in an engineering building on the campus. It was there that the majority of deaths occurred: 30 people were shot and killed before the assailant apparently turned the gun on himself.

While university officials and various law enforcement agencies are still unravelling exactly what happened, the use of the e-mail notification system and the timeline related to when messages went out are expected to be part of the probe.

E-mail is not the only option available in such scenarios. Other technologies, such as emergency notification systems that can push out critical informational messages to cell phones, landline phones, e-mail addresses, fax machines and other devices, are being used at other schools and companies across the nation.

Judy Lilly, associate vice president for network infrastructure and services at Virginia Tech, couldn't be reached Wednesday for comment on the notification process or the technology used by the school. Her assistant said that Lilly, who was out of the office on Monday when the attacks occurred, was "still gathering information on what [emergency communications] systems are used" at the university.

Susan Trulove, a public relations staff member at Virginia Tech, said Wednesday that the school sent text messages to alert students and faculty members about the unfolding events at the same time it distributed the e-mail notifications. But the text messages were received only by people who had signed up for such notifications, according to Trulove. She said she had no estimate of the number of people who had done so.

Virginia Tech also used a public address system that is set up around the campus to advise people to stay inside buildings and secure themselves, Trulove said. Other means of communication, including automated phone calls to landline phone numbers, were used as well, she added. But she didn't have further details on the school's notification system.

Casey Paquet, the Web manager at Eckerd College, a liberal arts school in St. Petersburg, Florida., said Eckerd deployed an emergency notification system from MessageOne a year ago to better protect students in case of hurricanes and other weather emergencies. The AlertFind system allows the school to send custom on-the-fly alerts instantly to its 2,200 students, faculty and staff members during any emergency, Paquet said.

"We're sitting on 180 acres of waterfront here, which is gorgeous to look at but which puts us in a prone position" in the event of destructive weather, he said. "We've been incredibly lucky, but over the last couple of years we've gotten a lot more aggressive" in increasing safety for students and faculty.

"One of the primary things was how do we tell people to stay inside [in an emergency]?" Paquet said. The school looked at several emergency notification systems before choosing AlertFind, he said. "E-mail's just not it [alone]. It's not going to work. It's not fast enough" to get the information out quickly when people are not in front of their computers.

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Todd R. Weiss

Computerworld
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