Emergency Notification in an instant

On Valentine’s Day, at Northern Illinois University, a chilling message of a possible shooting on campus flashed on e-mails, the school’s official Web site and rang on telephones in dorms and offices. The first notice came at 3:20 p.m. and 11 others followed, giving more information over the next two and a half hours, according to news accounts.

The first alert told of a possible shooting and ordered students to get to safe areas. Posted at intervals of 10 to 20 minutes, other alerts confirmed the shooting and announced the cancellation of classes. Later ones announced an all clear and advised students to call parents, news reports say.

This was no test. It was the real thing. Stephen Kazmierczak, a 27-year-old former graduate student in sociology, had walked out from behind a screen and stepped in front of a lecture hall packed with 150 students in a geology class, according to university officials. The thin White man dressed in black whipped out a shotgun and two pistols and started firing, seemingly at random. He killed five and injured 16 students before commiting suicide.

It was an eerie repeat of the horrific shootings a year ago at Virginia Tech in which 33 people lost their lives. Except for one thing, that is. Like 1,000 or so universities shocked by the Tech slayings,NIUhad reviewed its information technology-based security system to warn the campus about life-threatening dangers. More updates are in store, but, in general, “various systems worked, and we got the information out as fast as possible,” says Jim Fatz, director of IT security and operations atNIU.

Indeed, this spring heralds a strange new world on campus. The Blacksburg shootings last April 16 generated new pressure to use information technology to greatly improve emergency notification. Upgrades at Northern Illinois, about 65 miles west of Chicago, apparently worked in limiting the number of casualties. Dr. John Peters, NIU president, told CNN that the school had reviewed andimproved its alert plans.

In the past year, adding new security has “become like a religion,” says Marc Ladin, vice president of global marketing for 3n of Glendale, Calf., which provides notification services to about 100 universities around the country, including Virginia Tech, Pepperdine University and theUniversity ofMichigan.

The business of electronic notification hadn’t really gained much  attention until the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon in 2001, killing more than 3,000 people. Critical attention on alerts got a huge boost after the VT killings came out of nowhere.

Technical Difficulties

Yet, upgrades to accommodate emergency alerts on college campuses are actually harder than they might seem. It is technically difficult to issue simultaneous alerts on campuses that can be the size of small cities, so several systems at once must be used. One of them, text messaging, may be extremely popular with students, but the technology behind it is a lot less developed than for voice communication, and this can cause problems.

Cost can be an issue because sometimes students from low-income families can’t afford cell phones, which are key elements in the emergency notification process. For colleges and universities, the expense of added electronic alert systems doesn’t seem that significant. It ranges from a few thousand dollars for a small college to about $100,000 per year for amajor university.

Indeed, the rush to tap technology to remedy the problem has brought an incredibly brisk market for companies like 3n and MIR3 Intelligent Notification. Before the VT killings, most notification firms sold their services to government agencies and corporations, but today the telephones are literally ringing off the hook.

 “We’ve seen a 1,200 percent growth in our business since last April,” says Ara Bagdasarian, president of Omnilert LLC., of Leesburg, Va. The firm sells high-tech alert systems to schools including the Anne Arundel Community College system (Md.), the University of Memphis and Florida A&M University. Another firm, San Diego-basedMIR3, served only two universities before the VT shootings, but now handles 123, says Ken Dixon, executive vice president.

The 3n company has seen its sales grow by 400 percent since theVT shootings and is the main contractor upgrading VT’s alert system. The company has a $200,000 contract over three years to provide VT with multiple technologies to alert the campus of problems. The first year will be free, “since we didn’t want to be seen as taking advantage of their situation,” says Ladin.

 According to VT spokesman Mark Owczarski, VT had employed a number of ways of communicating over the past several years. There are “blast” e-mails and voice mails and calls to residence hall telephones plus weather lines. About two years ago, the school introduced a tornado warning siren system that could be heard throughout the 250-acre campus that has 30,000 students.

Even so, the systems didn’t work last April 16 when student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed two people in a residence hall and later began a mass shooting spree in the classrooms of NorrisHall. A state review commission blamed VT authorities for not sending out an emergency alert via e-mail until 9:26 a.m., two hours after the first shootings. The commission said VT was right not to launch a campus wide lock-down but said a better alert systemcould have saved lives.

On July 1, VT contracted with 3n to start operating “VT Alerts” which includes text messaging, voice mail, e-mail and instant messaging via Yahoo orAOL.“More universities are using these [alerts] and technology is giving people more choices,” says Owczarski. “It goes far beyond the mimeographed papers taped to the backs of bathroom doors that we use day by day,”he says.

But, he adds, testing is essential and there are still problems to be worked out.“Our first test in October identified a technical improvement that was necessary regarding text messaging. The rate of spilling the message into a variety of providers needed to be improved. We corrected it.”

Despite the big upsurge of interest in emergency notification systems, only about 1,000 of the 4,000 or so colleges and universities in the United States are now involved, company officials say. As more colleges sign up, more problems are identified.

One problem is cultural and age-related. Students in their teens or twenties are comfortable with text messaging from their cell phones or instant messaging from their laptops. But if they haven’t signed up for the university emergency alert service, they won’t get the text message. And they might not be inclined to pick up a ringing telephone in a dorm room and get urgent information, says Bagdasarian. Faculty members and administrators, on the other hand, seem more comfortable with telephone calls, voicemails or emails, he adds.

The obvious solution is for schools to rig an alert systemthat reaches to all such areas. But even that solution has issues.

A Hit-or-miss System
Take Virginia Commonwealth University. As the test siren was about to wail, Stephanie Powell, a senior, admitted that she hadn’t signed up to get voice mails or text messages sent to her cell phone. “I’m lazy, I guess,” she says.

What’s more, Pam Lepley, a VCU spokesperson, says one obvious problemwith the test was that those who did sign up for text messages got them at varying periods of time after the siren. “I gotmine immediately,” she says, “but it took 10 minutes for a colleague to get it.”

Experts say that one problem — getting students to pay attention and sign up for notification — can be solved by providing incentives. Ladin of 3n says that one school offered a chance at winning an IPod if they signed up their cell phones with the school alert system. “What student doesn’t want an IPod?” he says. Some schools are mandating that students sign up to the notification system, says Dixon of MIR3. Yet some schools, particularly in the New York area, have many low-income students who can’t afford cell phones. Programs to help them get cell phonesmight be launched.

The other problemismore technical. Ladin notes that while wireless or landline voice communication has been greatly upgraded year after year, text messaging is still far behind. The technology for it is only about six years old and has to go through a number of upgrades before it gets to the quality level of voice communication. Another problem is that students buy their cell phone services through any number of carriers who may have varying degrees of sophistication with text messaging. Using text messaging has big advantages, however, since it can take just a second or two to send out thousands of text messages, provided the systems work. It is much faster than using telephone lines.

Text messaging has been a problem at the University of Connecticut in Storrs as the school considers notification upgrades, according toMaj.Ronald Blicher of the campus police. “Text messaging is not what we consider to be good enough at this point,” he says. UConn authorities are designing a system that fits the campus’ densely built, urban style, which includes adding extra alert telephones. Another idea they’re considering is placing streaming banner announcements that would pop up on all computer screens in the university system.

A question for all universities is who should control the alert system. Blicher says UConn’s should be headquartered with the campus police and fire departments because they would be the first to respond to an emergency and would have the latest information. However, many of the new systems are designed to be put into motion remotely as a backup. Some have questioned whether an IT company hundreds of miles away will trigger the alarm fast enough. Having the option of kicking the notifications in remotely could help if the police station is somehow not functioning during an emergency.

 “What if the first place that goes down is the police station?” says Dixon of MIR3. “During 9/11, whole groups of people disappeared. You have to have the ability to delegate (notification) authority,”he says.

While many schools are testing their new IT systems, few have actually had to use them.On Feb. 5, the University of Mississippi at Oxford sent out emergency e-mails at 6 p.m. that a series of tornados was threatening the area, that students should take cover and that classes next day were cancelled.

At the University of Memphis last Oct. 1, an emergency e-mail alert was sent out at 3:40 a.m. About six hours earlier, Taylor Bradford, 21, a junior who was a football player and promising athlete, had been shot and killed in a car near university housing. University officials and police mulled over whether it was a targeted or randomattack or if itmight presage amassmurder like the VT killings.

What’s next for emergency notification? Upgrades in the technology of textmessaging appear likely. New services also are popping up. One, offered by MIR3, includes parents on emergency notification lists. College administrators will be busy, too, since many signed up for only a year of service and chose only one or two methods of notification when several are needed.

“There will be a lot of contract renegotiation this year,” saysDixon.

 Prior to the Feb. 14 slayings, NIU had not bought any additional IT security systems, says Fatz. “We don’t have any immediate plans to do any purchases now, but this obviously escalates the need for more review,” he says. As the incident at NIU has shown, the danger continues to be real.

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