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Colleges and universities across the United States are moving quickly to adopt text messaging as their first line of emergency notification, experts said.

The rush to find ways to send tens of thousands of SMS messages to student cell phones was only intensified this week by the tragic events at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va.

However, this incident is not the only recent incentive for schools to look for ways to reach their students in an emergency. Other reasons include weather emergencies, especially in the South where hurricane evacuations are almost an annual event.

And, of course, there’s the fact that the U.S. Department of Education requires colleges and universities to have the means to reach their students in a timely manner in times of crisis. The question for university administrators has always been what is the best way to notify students, and in many cases, that boils down to e-mail, since virtually every student has a school e-mail account. The problem is, as Virginia Tech found to its sorrow, that e-mail is rarely an adequate solution.

"Mainly, what we think is that colleges should be using text messaging systems," said Katherine Andriole, program director for Security on Campus, a nonprofit organization that works with the Department of Justice to help fight crime on campus.

Andriole said that using SMS-based text messaging makes sense, if only because college students are almost never without their cell phones. The advantage, Andriole said, is that, "Messages go out simultaneously. What we saw at Virginia Tech is that the communications system was pretty inefficient. They relied on e-mail and word of mouth. A lot of students said they didn’t check their e-mail."

Andriole said that it’s not uncommon for e-mail alerts on college campuses to remain unread for hours or days, rendering even timely alerts useless. Fortunately, there are a number of companies that provide such alerting systems, some that are limited to SMS alerts, and some that handle a wide variety of messaging options.

Bryan Crum, director of communications for Omnilert in Leesburg, Virginia, described the system that’s offered by his company. "It’s a Web-based service so there’s no hardware or software for the university to install," Crum said. "Once the system is integrated into the university’s Web site, which takes about 10 minutes, a university official can log in, type a message, select the group they want to send it to, and hit send. The message is sent simultaneously via the messaging the sender chose."

Crum said that Omnilert users can choose SMS messaging to cell phone, e-mail, RSS feeds and Web site updates, or any combination of those. Crum said that the cost of such a system depends on the size of the school, but averages less than a dollar per student per year, regardless of the number of messages sent.

Crum’s company is unusual in that it insists that all students being put on the list for emergency alerts specifically opt in. He said that his company does not just load the student database into its system and force students to be part of it.

Wireless problems played a part in the chaos at Virginia Tech. Click here to read more.

However, other companies, and many universities take a different view. Brian Payst, director of technology and system support for the division of student affairs at the University of North Carolina, said he is considering making it mandatory for students to provide their cell phone numbers for emergency notifications, although he said they can opt in for other functions.

Currently Payst is running a pilot program for about 400 users that’s strictly opt-in.

Casey Paquet, Web manager at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., has already made his decision, and in his school’s case, students must sign up for the service.

"With students it’s not opt in or out. This is important enough that we don’t feel there’s an ethical issue in using their numbers," Paquet said. He noted that the school has been evacuated five times in the last three years for hurricanes, and without some form of emergency notification, students wouldn’t be protected.

Next Page: Fast delivery is the key.

"With a text messaging system, it’s the most reliable way to communicate with students these days. It’s the fastest way," Paquet said.

He added that his most recent attempt to get students to provide their cell phone numbers happened to come on the same day as the Virginia Tech shootings. "We sent out a message telling students that we couldn’t warn them if we didn’t have their numbers. We had a lot of students give us their numbers," Paquet said.

Eckerd College, a small private liberal arts college, uses the managed messaging service from MessageOne in Austin, Texas. "We have a managed service that uses all available infrastructure," said Paul D’Arcy, vice president of marketing for MessageOne. "We can send phone calls, e-mails, SMS, pages, faxes. Our system knows the difference between voice mail and a real person and can ask questions."

He said that his company’s business with colleges and universities is growing rapidly. "Today we have many colleges and universities who use it related to crisis communications. We have a lot of universities in the hurricane belt," D’Arcy said.

"It’s delivered as a managed service so there’s no dependence on the organization’s infrastructure," D’Arcy said, pointing out that this means that a school could send out an alert to its students even if it had lost power or suffered some other unexpected event.

Payst, who uses a system from Rave Wireless that’s similar to MessageOne, says that the ability to invoke the emergency alerts from a Web interface is important. "I could do this from my Treo," he said.

As it turns out, an interface that’s quick and easy to use is a major factor in choosing an emergency notification systems for many colleges. Each of the vendors contacted for this article pointed out that only a single Web form need be filled out once the phone number data base was loaded, and that the entire process could take less than a minute.

"The administrator would log into our secure server, compose the message and the message would be sent immediately to everyone on their list," said Scot Talcott, chief operating officer of Catchwind, in Des Moines, Iowa. The Catchwind product only provides for sending SMS messages for cell phones. "The administrator logs in and we identify the database, and push it out to all major carriers. We ensure that those messages are delivered," Talcott said.

Talcott said that his system can deliver those messages very quickly, around 10 to 15 thousand every couple of minutes. "A 20,000 student campus would be five or six minutes. Messages would be received within five minutes," he said.

Other systems that can send messages using a more diverse set of messaging options can take longer. "You’re at the mercy of the cell phone carriers," UNC’s Payst said.

Who is reading your cell phone’s text messages? Click here to read more.

When asked about the number of messages he could expect to be delivered, Payst said, "About 10 messages a second; about 30 minutes to get it deliver to 40,000 recipients including faculty and staff."

It’s a problem of the cell phone providers getting the messages and pumping them out, but Payst noted that this is still far better than depending on e-mail.

"If I send out 40,000 e-mail messages we’re looking at several hours before it gets out to everyone. Then they have to check their e-mail, and actually read it," he said.

The emergency notification providers said that they’ve found that students are more accepting of the technology—and more likely to provide their cell phone numbers—if they can get some additional benefit from the service.

For that reason, the companies also offer a number of "opt-in" services that provide extra value to students.

"For every tragedy we hear about like Monday, there are thousands of personal tragedies," said Rodger Desai, CEO of Rave Wireless, the oldest of the emergency text messaging companies.

Desai said that those personal tragedies inspired his company to develop a new personal alerting system for students. "We have Rave Guardian. It transmits their GPS location to police," he said.

Desai said that a student can set a timer on their Guardian so that if the time runs out before the student shuts it off, police will realize that something has happened to the student and head for their location as indicated by the GPS.

Next Page: The challenge of getting students to release their cell phone numbers.

"At the University of Vermont a student left a party on a Friday evening and it wasn’t until Saturday that her parents discovered she’d been abducted and murdered because she was scheduled to have dinner with them," Desai said.

He said that if she’d had Guardian available, police would have known when she was overdue, and been dispatched to her indicated location.

Desai said that the Rave Wireless can also provide targeted messages for student organizations, warn of power outages and even track the student shuttles, as is done at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. Such extra features are also proving to be a big selling point for other systems.

"They might have groups for campus activities, sports news, reminders, and each of those groups can be administered by multiple people that are only responsible for that group," said Crum of Omnilert.

Scot Talcott said that he sees similar uses. "Others use it for admissions, deadlines, some use it for increasing attendance at some sporting events," Talcott said. "What we see with those programs is that they’re targeted so we see students sign up for different types of alerts."

Payst said that the challenge is getting a student to give you their cell phone number and keep it current. He said that with the value-add services, there’s an incentive for students to use it on a daily basis, and that if they like the services, they’ll be more likely to provide their cell phone numbers, and keep them up to date.

Still, even the best means of communication require a plan. Schools must decide how to use their text alert systems, under what circumstances they should be used, and who is authorized to issue alerts. In addition, schools have to decide how and when to make the decision to move ahead with such a system.

"It’s kind of a misconception that it would be a nightmare to implement," Andriole said, noting that while some planning is necessary, most of the work doesn’t fall into the lap of the college. "The company comes to the school and sets it up. They could have it up and running in a couple of days," she said.

However, that doesn’t mean the process is always fast. "It takes a long time to get approval from various departments, and decide who’s going to pay for it and what budget the money will come from. It can take months before they’ve figured out everything," Crum said.

In the case of Omnilert, very little is required besides a link on the college’s Web site, although sometimes it’s hard to convince the college of that. "IT people have this habit of making things more complicated than they need to be," Crum said.

D’Arcy agreed. "Essentially it takes us about a day to get a university deployed," he said. "We collect data from their student directory. We can turn it on in about 24 hours."

But once the system is in place, the next stage of planning—the actual decision to use an emergency notification system—must be made. Andriole said that schools can process and implement a crisis plan, and she pointed out that this is not the same thing as planning a fire drill, although universities should also do that.

"We think schools need to do this even though they think it won’t happen. Processing a drill that you’re not going to use is not a huge problem. You just need to make sure every thing is running smoothly," she said.

Of course, the planning does take time in an academic environment. It was a three year process at Eckerd College. "I realized that it’s a much bigger process than you think, but completely worth it," Paquet said.

MessageOne’s D’Arcy stressed that it’s very important for a university to have business continuity and disaster recovery plans in place, and it’s very important to be able to deliver notification to everyone affiliated with the university and to account for everyone’s safety afterwards.

Click here to read about why phone communication was so poor during Hurricane Katrina.

D’Arcy said that his company’s product can actually ask users if they need help. Similar systems can also request responses by e-mail or text messaging. "Universities have a very difficult communications challenge. They have hundreds of acres and buildings and thousands of students. It’s pretty essential for them to have," he said.

Such systems are not only essential, but they are required. Explaining that the Clery Act of 1990 mandates the reporting of crimes on campuses and the timely notification of students, Andriole said that colleges and universities have been slow to move. "This issue hasn’t been in the forefront. We’re urging colleges to rethink that. The students do pay to go there, they should expect that they’re being protected," Andriole said.

She noted, however, that a recent increase in publicity about campus crime, even before the tragedy at Virginia Tech, has started to make schools take notice.

"In general, colleges are vastly improved over the years," Andriole said. "Recently colleges have been holding training seminars. A lot of feedback is that colleges have a hard time understanding what to do."

Andriole said that her organization has been running seminars to help schools with their planning and with compliance with the Clery Act.

Still, even when they comply with the law, and even when they’ve built the best possible communications system, college administrators seem to share one wish, as voiced by UNC’s Payst. "We hope we never have to use it," he said.

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