College changes emergency alert system after tsunami scare

Cloud-based emergency alerts are becoming commonplace on campuses.

Marymount College in Palo Verdes, Calif., has switched to a cloud-based emergency notification system after the campus’s old alert technology failed to warn students and faculty of a possible tsunami headed toward the school last spring.

Marymount officials said that the aging emergency notification system not only left the 800-student campus–located near the Port of Los Angeles–without timely warning, but school administrators weren’t able to contact the company in charge of the system as reports swirled of a tsunami off the California coast.

Denise Fessenbecker, the college’s director of general services, said customer service representatives who managed Marymount’s account with the emergency alert company didn’t respond to the school’s requests for six days after the tsunami threats first surfaced.

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“We tried to inform our students near the Port of Los Angeles that there was no danger to the tsunami, but the alerting service failed to function throughout the day,” Fessenbecker said.

The cloud computing-based emergency alert system, called e2Campus, has brought the small private school up to date with major universities that can transmit announcements and warnings from almost anywhere, including from smart phones connected to the web.

More than 800 colleges and universities use e2Campus, including Arizona State University (ASU) and Penn State University (PSU).

Like a host of cloud-based emergency alert systems, e2Campus can target warnings to where college students spend an inordinate amount of time: on Twitter and Facebook. The system also lets students and faculty members send tips about suspicious on-campus activity to Marymount administrators and campus police.

Using the system’s uConference feature, Marymount officials can arrange private phone conversations with specific groups of students or educators, relaying warnings and vital information as inclement weather approaches, for example.

e2Campus’s hotline tool ensures that students who call the emergency phone number won’t encounter a busy signal if there are too many people on the line, according to the company’s website.

Marymount’s adoption of the e2Campus platform follows a year in which many campuses saw major changes to the way students are alerted of weather and safety emergencies, along with everyday announcements.

Officials from Blackboard’s Connect division announced July 11 that new features available through the company’s alert program would include customization, easier targeting of specific student groups, and the option of sending messages via Apple mobile devices.

Blackboard’s updated notification system uses technology from AlertNow, a company used in more than 2,200 K-12 school districts that was bought by Blackboard in 2010.

The growing number of campuses using notification systems was evident this spring, when schools across the Midwest kept students and their parents updated about school closings and weather warnings as tornadoes ripped through towns and cities.

Blackboard’s Connect system dispatched more than 18 million school alerts in a single day in May.

Web-based emergency alert systems drew national attention after a gunman at Virginia Tech killed 32 people in April 2007. University officials waited at least two hours to warn the campus community of the first shootings.

Virginia Tech’s emergency system worked flawlessly Dec. 8 when a campus police officer was shot and killed by a student from a nearby campus.

“Every student has received copious amounts of text messages and eMails giving play by plays of everything going on today,” said Ryan Waddell, a junior political science major at Virginia Tech who was in his dorm room when he received the first text alert. “We feel confident in Virginia Tech’s ability to alert and protect us. … None of us feel like we’re in immediate danger.”

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