Instant Alerts: School Alert System to Warn Students in Variety of Ways
BY ERIN LEACH-KEMON
Nearly 1,900 UMW students, faculty and staff have signed up for a new emergency alert system the school initiated this summer in the wake of the tragic murders of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech last spring—a tragedy many think could have been at least partially averted with a similar system in place at the time.
With the new system, UMW will be able to send emergency alerts and instructions to registered users’ cell phones, e-mail accounts, pagers and BlackBerrys.
Mary Washington is also exploring the possibilities of installing both an on-campus loudspeaker system and a series of electronic signs for emergency notifications. In the past, the school relied on e-mail announcements and postings on the school’s web site.
UMW’s director of Environmental Health and Safety, Ruth Lovelace, has researched emergency notifications and contacted other universities about their systems since 2004, but explained that notification systems were not high on the University’s priority list until recently.
“Previous administrations would not allow us to have them…It wasn’t that they didn’t want to alert students, but they weren’t attuned to the devices that were out there,” she said.
The moment Lovelace addressed the issue to Acting President Rick Hurley, he said that the University must have an area warning system on campus.
The system cost the school $40,000, with a $10,000 renewal fee. There is no charge for registering, and users can manage their personal account, listing up to two e-mail addresses and two electronic devices to be notified in case of emergencies.
Teresa Mannix, director of News and Public Information, credited Hurley as one of the primary advocates of the program.
“Rick Hurley has really made it a priority to keep our students and employees safe,” she said. “He’s taking the information that came out of Virginia Tech very seriously. The University received numerous calls from concerned parents and students…A lot of people were reassured once they knew what his plans were.”
Sophomore Jan Winchell predicts that her family will be pleased with the University’s new security measures. “I’m sure my parents will be less worried with this kind of thing,” she said.
Mannix explained that notifications will only be used in emergency situations. “We’re not going to spam anybody with text messages. We know that users have to pay for each text message that they get. We’re not going to be sending random messages about things that aren’t emergencies,” she said.
According to UMW officials, in an emergency circumstance, a preauthorized University administrator or manager will immediately send alert notifications to all registered users’ cell phones, mobile devices, and/or e-mail accounts.
Text messages will arrive seconds after being sent and users should be aware that they may receive several messages, should read each carefully and then follow the instructions provided.
On June 21, the first test message was sent out. The University has purchased licenses for 10,000 people.
Several vendors were considered before the University chose their new provider, Roam Secure Inc. Lovelace, one of the administrators of the Alert Network, explained that while Roam Secure was not the cheapest among the various companies the University reviewed it was definitely the best.
She explained that a major reason for choosing Roam Secure was that it is on state contract, meaning the prices are already negotiated.
Chip German, vice president for Information Resources and Chief Information Officer, voiced another deciding factor. “Roam Secure guarantees a very rapid turn around,” he said. According to Lovelace, the service can send messages to 18,000 devices a minute.
Another advantage of Roam Secure is that the service is hosted off campus. The main server system, German explained, is “located in a Virginia location and out west somewhere.”
Lovelace explained that since these locations are not geographically connected, the system would still operate even in the event of a natural disaster.
Assistant Professor of English Sarah Allen, who has registered for the new service, said that people might not know what actions they should take should an actual emergency occur on campus. “A test run would be hard to implement,” Allen said, but she felt that some kind of drill would be helpful.
Lovelace said that the University plans to conduct a trial run sometime in October or November.
The administrators have not fully decided upon a strategy to ensure that each user’s information is current, but German explained that they may have students reregister each year.
“The trick is making sure everyone signs up for it and that that information is current…If we don’t take aggressive means to make you update your information then that information could be incorrect at the time that you really need it,” said German.
German explained that a disadvantage of the text-messaging service is that not everyone has cell phones or phones that accept text messages. “Which is why these other channels are important,” he said.
Presently, the University is negotiating with a prospective company, ADT, to install emergency notification loudspeakers at the Fredericksburg and Stafford campuses, which are priced at $200,000.
The University originally wanted to have the loudspeakers installed by fall semester, but Lovelace explained that they are now aiming for the spring.
Bernard Chirico, vice president for Student Affairs, feels that with multiple systems, the University stands a better chance of notifying the entire campus in an emergency.
“For example, while in class or a meeting, cell phones are likely placed on silent mode and the text message alert function on the phone might be delayed for a short time,” he said. “The loudspeaker system would alert everyone to look at their cell phone.”
Currently, the University of Maryland, Villanova University, and the University of Southern California are all using Roam Secure’s services.
According to Lovelace, UMW was the first to launch the text-messaging system in Virginia, and now several other schools have implemented systems.
Virginia Tech, for example, now offers “VT Alerts,” an alert system like UMW’s where the school will contact registered users via text message, instant message, mobile phone, and e-mail.
“Ever since the Tech shooting this is the biggest thing that schools are signing up for immediately. Everyone is doing this,” Mannix said.