Company claim: Emergency alerts get to students in 20 seconds

Universities have failed in recent years to send alerts to students.

A two-inch keychain might be the solution for campus officials hoping to avoid public scrutiny next time their emergency text messages hit a logjam and don’t reach student and faculty cell phones.

IntelliGuard Systems’ RavenAlert, which provides the campus community with a keychain that rings when it receives an emergency message, avoids delays by sending thousands of messages over a private wireless network.

So instead of connecting to a myriad of mobile devices – all with different internet protocol addresses – the RavenAlert system sends the college’s alert to thousands of keychains with the same address.

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Not getting the (text) message

And the message is usually received in less than 20 seconds, said Roy Pottle, chairman and CEO of Intelliguard Systems.

Text messaging bottlenecks won’t just cause delays in the first emergency notification, security experts said, but make it nearly impossible for campus officials to send updates about shooting or developing weather emergencies.

“If you’re relying on text messages as [a notification system], your student is walking into harm’s way,” said Pottle, whose company works with six campuses, including the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. “It’s not just the initial message, but the ability to send out information as it occurs in an emergency.”

Higher education has seen a slew of delayed notifications since the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that killed 32 people. School officials waited two hours to send emergency eMails on the day of the shootings, according to a report issued after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.

Almost an hour passed before University of Alabama faculty and students were alerted to a shooting that killed three last year. Delaware State University students went largely without notice when two students were shot near campus in 2007.

And students at the University of Utah in September 2009 didn’t receive text and eMail alerts until several hours after a severe storm hit the Salt Lake City campus.

While the RavenAlert system might prove more reliable than text messages, convincing students to carry the keychains – or the memory stick IntelliGuard will unveil later this year – could be a hurdle, especially as students increasingly use web-accessible smart phones capable of receiving eMail alerts.

“It’s small enough and unobtrusive enough to carry it” on backpacks or attached to a dormitory key, Pottle said.

Even if less than half of students on a campus carry the RavenAlert keychain, he said, the emergency message should spread quickly enough to warn the campus community of where a shooter might be, for example.

Koren Kanadanian, director of emergency management at Providence College in Rhode Island, said mass text messages to students and faculty are ideal for warnings of road closures or announcements of upcoming school events.

“But they weren’t designed to work in the way we use them for emergencies,” he said. “That has always been one of my big concerns. … If the line starts to get tied up, or if I need to do a quick follow-up message as things change, I want to do that without worrying about when people” will receive the alert.

Kanadanian said about 200 Providence College faculty members and students use the RavenAlert keychains. Campus officials hope to find a way to give keychains to every student next school year, he said.

Providence students pay $70 per keychain on the 3,900-student campus. Pottle said the device would cost about $30 at larger institutions.

The college supplied keychains for 90 residents assistants (RAs) – a group of dormitory supervisors who can feed information to students without the keychain during an emergency, Kanadanian said.

“We can’t force them to purchase [the keychain],” he said. “But we know RAs are some key folks who should get that message out to students.”

Pottle encourages colleges to use a “layered approach” to notification, using the RavenAlert system only for emergencies.

“You don’t want to diminish its importance and use it on a regular basis,” he said. “It shouldn’t just become another message you view at your leisure.”

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