Federal law could spur campus alert systems

U.S. colleges need to work quickly to upgrade their policies on emergency notification, response, and evacuation. The efforts are driven at least in part by the federal College Opportunity and Affordability Act, which was signed into law Aug. 14.

The legislation followed a rash of school shootings, most tragically including the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were shot and killed. But except in terms of volume, Virginia Tech’s tragedy wasn’t unique.  

Last September, for example, two Delaware State University students were shot near a campus dining hall, and authorities scrambled to keep students in their dorms and tell the campus community exactly what had transpired. Updates were posted on the school’s web site, but only a sliver of the student body got the message.

This year, university officials are more confident in their ability to inform, and inform quickly. Delaware State is one of many universities across the nation that are using emergency notification technology that instantly sends messages to students’ and faculty’s cell phones and eMail inboxes. During the school’s next emergency, the campus’s 3,700 students and 600 faculty and staff will be alerted within minutes of a violent act or extreme weather.

Delaware State officials and students said last year’s shooting did not dissolve the campus into panic, but students and faculty were not clear on the details of the attack.

"[The emergency system] will definitely help us notify the students quicker than we have in the past," said James Overton, Delaware State’s police chief. The eMail and phone messages won’t just tell students about an emergency on campus, Overton said. The warnings also will include instructions to find shelter, evacuate, or stay put.

"Not only do you have to tell them what’s going on; you also have to tell them what to do," he said.

University officials have stressed that students must sign up for the service to receive emergency-alert messages. Students and faculty log on to the school’s web site and plug in their personal eMail address and cell phone number. If they decline either or both options, the emergency message will be sent to the student’s university-issued eMail inbox.

Delaware State is using Instant Alert for Schools from New Jersey-based Honeywell International. The system was developed after a K-12 model released in November 2003, allowing schools to communicate with parents through automated phone calls and text messages. More than 2,600 schools nationwide use Honeywell’s alert system, and about 230 college campuses have adopted the company’s higher-education model, said company spokeswoman Karla Lemmon. The system reportedly can send out 125,000 text messages and 175,000 30-second automated phone calls in 15 minutes.

Emergency-alert systems vary widely in cost: Lemmon said small campuses can spend as little as $10,000 for installation, while larger universities typically spend upwards of $100,000.

Delaware State’s new system will supplement the university’s original emergency-response techniques, which included updating the school’s web site and posting messages in residence halls.

"This system enhances [the traditional approach, it] doesn’t replace it," Overton said, adding that officials planned on testing the response system sometime in September. He said the alerts would be sent out in the case of a shooting, severe weather, school closings, or other emergencies—such as a chemical spill in the campus’s laboratories.

Delaware State students remember the confusion after last year’s shootings, and many said they were relieved knowing their cell phones and eMail in-boxes will alert them if tragedy strikes again. Delaware State senior Brittany Pace said it’s crucial for universities to communicate with students through text messaging, because so many college students consider texting a primary form of correspondence.

"Text messaging is a very important part of student life," said Pace, 20. "That’s the way we communicate with each other. … And this will make me definitely feel safer on campus."

Giving the university her personal eMail address and cell phone number was not a problem for Pace. In fact, she said, most students have complied with the school’s request and entered their contact information in the university’s database.

"It doesn’t make me uncomfortable," she said. "What would make me more unconformable is not knowing what’s going on on campus. I think this can be very effective."


Delaware State University