Colleges seek better emergency-notification systems

The two hours it took for Virginia Tech officials to eMail students a warning about a gunman on campus last month have raised the question of how schools can get critical news out faster in a crisis–and how technology can help.




"When you’re in the middle of something, two hours is not very long. But when you’re looking in, it does seem like a long time," says Mitchell Celaya, the assistant chief of campus police at the University of California, Berkeley.




At UC Berkeley, Celaya says an extreme emergency would warrant, among other things, a siren on an outdoor public address system, followed by an announcement with instructions.




The University of Florida is working with local police to place automatic calls to campus telephones with similar kinds of messages, including alerts about hurricanes and tornadoes. And the University of Cincinnati has gone as far as making its public address system audible inside buildings.




"There is no one magic communication system that we can press a button and let everyone know what is going on," says Chris Meyer, assistant vice president for safety and security at Texas A&M University, where they use all of the above methods and others.




Getting word out to students also was the plan at Virginia Tech, where officials have been working on a system that would get emergency alerts to students via text messages on their cell phones.




That system was not in place April 16, during the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history. The gunman who killed 32 people and then himself was identified by police on April 17 as Cho Seung-Hui, a South Korean studying at the university.




Virginia Tech officials and local law-enforcement authorities faced pressure to explain how the gunman apparently avoided detection after killing two people in a university dorm and then went on to kill 30 others in a classroom building across campus two hours later.




Some students said their first notice of trouble came in an eMail message sent at 9:26 a.m., after the second shooting had begun.




University president Charles Steger said the university decided to rely on eMail and other electronic means to spread the word, but he added that with 11,000 people driving onto campus first thing in the morning, it was difficult to get the word out.




Steger said that before the eMail messages went out, the university began telephoning resident advisers in the dorms and sent people to knock on doors. Students were warned to stay inside and away from the windows.




"We can only make decisions based on the information you had at the time. You don’t have hours to reflect on it," he said.




The University of Georgia has joined a small but growing number of institutions that are testing emergency-notification systems similar to what Virginia Tech had planned. Its service, provided by the California-based NTI Group, is voluntary and allows students to plug in various phone numbers and eMail addresses to a web site–and then transfers messages from the university using phone systems outside the affected area so it doesn’t jam local phone lines.




"One person may be receiving five different messages through five different means," says UGA spokesman Tom Jackson.




Elsewhere, some universities are devising more targeted means of security in hopes of quickening their responses.




The University of Washington has a high-level safety team that was put in place after a murder-suicide. The aim is to move staffers who are in danger to other offices or provide them extra security protection. However, that system failed recently when a 26-year-old staffer was killed by her ex-boyfriend on April 2.




There’s also no guarantee that students will heed warnings.




Diane Brown, spokeswoman for the University of Michigan’s public safety department, says officials there sometimes have trouble getting students to exit buildings during fire alarms and other emergencies because of false alarms.




"How do you overcome that desensitization?" she asks.




She and others note that it’s also common for students to let strangers into dorms that are locked or require key cards. Propping doors open is also still a rampant practice.




And the fact of the matter is, campuses are largely open places where just about anyone–especially a student–is free to roam.




For that reason, college officials across the country agree that, in the end, no higher-education institution is immune to this kind of violence, no matter how well it prepares.




"Obviously, these crazy out-of-the-blue nightmare scenarios can happen just about anywhere," says John Holden, a spokesman at DePaul University in Chicago.



Until April 16, the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history was in Killeen, Texas, in 1991, when George Hennard plowed his pickup truck into a Luby’s Cafeteria and shot 23 people to death, then himself.




The April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech took place almost eight years to the day after the Columbine High School shootings near Littleton, Colo. On April 20, 1999, two teenagers killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives.Previously, the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history was a rampage in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin, where Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower and opened fire. He killed 16 people before police shot him to death.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at