Oregon State University is working toward turning the almost universal student cell phone ownership on campus into an early warning system to warn against emergencies such as a gunman running amok.
The university plans to purchase software to simultaneously send thousands of text messages to students and faculty and says the system could be in place by the end of this college year.
“Post-Virginia Tech, the expectation is that we will do timely notification of critical events on campus, so we are working toward that,” said Lt. Phil Zerzan, station commander for the Oregon State Police at OSU.
In April, a gunman killed 33 people at Virginia Tech. An investigation determined the school could have saved lives by warning those on campus that two students had been shot to death in a dormitory and that the murderer was still on the loose.
Two hours after those initial deaths, Virginia Tech officials sent out a campuswide e-mail about the situation.
Twenty minutes later, the gunman started a massacre in a university building.
While a mass text messaging could save lives, school officials say the tricky part is getting students to opt into the system–something they can’t force, said Todd Simmons, assistant vice president for advancement.
Schools using such systems are getting 50 percent participation at most, he added.
“I’ve heard about a dozen different universities” have programs in place similar to the one OSU wants, said Derek Abrams, an operating systems network analyst for OSU and the Oregon University System.
Four other state schools – Western Oregon University, Eastern Oregon University, Southern Oregon University and the Oregon Institute of Technology – may partner with OSU in purchasing a system, Abrams said.
The other Oregon universities are looking at purchasing similar systems, he added.
Besides cost savings, teaming up could provide benefits in a statewide emergency. Abrams said the system could cost as much as $250,000.
While text messaging could help, there is no simple solution, Zerzan said.
“I spend a lot of time analyzing what happened at Virginia Tech. If you could go back in time and ensure that everybody had two or three sentences, what would the message be? And would it save lives?”
Telling people to evacuate could expose them to trouble, he said.
Having people shelter in place could be beneficial for most but leave others as sitting ducks, Zerzan said.
Simmons said relying on one method of communication might not be the answer.
“We are communicating in so many different ways,” he said.
The university already can send e-mails to every student’s OSU-issued address – and students have the option of bouncing those to certain handheld devices.
OSU also is working on scrolling a message across every university computer screen.
“I think it would be awesome because everybody has a phone,” said Larisa Benson, 22, of Salem. “Someone who doesn’t have one, it’s like, ‘Ohmigod, they’re weird.'”
Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com
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