Campus security is once again in the national spotlight. As families and students struggle to cope in the aftermath of events at Virginia Tech, the worst shooting massacre in U.S. history, school leaders from coast to coast are reevaluating their own emergency plans and procedures–and experts agree that having quick and coordinated means of communicating is a key element of such plans.
From text-messaging systems to electronic billboards, and even a new twist on the old-fashioned intercom, campus administrators are exploring new technologies that can help get the word out quickly to students and staff in the event of a crisis.
For many schools, this involves cell phones–devices that are now nearly ubiquitous for today’s young adults. The use of cell phones on college campuses has grown dramatically since 2000, says Eric Weil, managing partner of Student Monitor, a New Jersey-based research organization that tracks trends across college campuses. Weil says the latest figures from 2007 show that more than 90 percent of college students now use cell phones, compared with just 34 percent in 2000.
In response to the Virginia Tech shootings and a rash of criminal activity reported across its sprawling campus, the University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP) recently launched UMD Alert. The free service, sponsored by the university’s Department of Public Safety, lets school administrators and other authorized personnel send text messages to students and instructors via their cell phones and a variety of other mobile devices with standard text-messaging capabilities. The service also can be used to send eMail messages to registered accounts.
Program administrators say the service will be used to communicate with students and faculty during an emergency. Aside from alerting people to a problem, the messages will be used to send instructions about what to do and whom to contact. The school reportedly had been looking for a more effective way to communicate with students since a 2001 tornado claimed the lives of two sisters, both students at the university, who were driving across campus.
The technology, fashioned by Arlington, Va.-based Roam Secure Inc., lets administrators access the system from anywhere they have an internet connection and provides online tracking capabilities to determine how and when messages are posted to the network.
Ned Ingraham, vice president of homeland security services at Roam Secure, says text messages aren’t only convenient; they’re also extremely reliable.
Unlike voice messages, which have been known to cripple phone networks in times of heightened activity–such as when millions of callers bombarded the phone lines in New York City following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001–text messages are sent over a different channel and transmitted in short bursts, making them much less likely to sink the network, he said.
"[Texting] is the fastest, most reliable way to get messages through," added Ingraham, who spent several years as the deputy chief information officer for the District of Columbia Emergency Management Agency before joining Roam Secure.
UMCP isn’t the only university turning to third-party message providers to better inform students. Ingraham says his company currently has contracts with, or is talking to, as many as 200 schools across the country–and the majority of that business has come in the weeks since the Virginia Tech shootings.
School administrators nationwide have been exploring text-messaging services as a way to connect with stakeholders, especially on college campuses, where students and teachers are spread across several buildings and there often is no single point of contact.
At the 35,000-student University of Cincinnati (UC), administrators have expanded the capabilities of an existing text-messaging tool for teachers and students to include an emergency alert system.
Fred Siff, vice president for information systems at UC, says the system is used daily to send important information to students.
Built in conjunction with NuSoft, a technology consulting firm, and mobile-messaging company ClearTXT out of Raleigh, N.C., the messaging service interacts with the school’s course-management system–giving teachers the ability to send comments about assignments, while enabling students to view marks on important exams, from wherever they have cell-phone service. Information also reportedly can be sent to networked computers and to personal and school eMail accounts. The tool also provides access to other features, such as a mapping technology that alerts students where certain buses are on campus.
Doug Kaufman, chief executive of ClearTXT, says these and other messaging services have been in high demand since the massacre in Blacksburg, Va.
Originally available as an "opt-in" service that enabled students to customize their alerts by the types of messages they wanted to receive–grades, teacher communications, bus routes, administrative updates, and so on–the latest version features an "opt-out" function for emergency notifications, Kaufman said. Rather than relying on students and faculty to sign up for the service, the program automatically subscribes users to the emergency notification system, giving students and teachers the ability to turn if off, if they choose.
When he started ClearTXT three years ago, Kaufman said the service was designed as a way for teachers and students to share information about schoolwork, not emergencies.
"Prior to what happened at Virginia Tech, this wasn’t really a big issue for schools," said Kaufman, whose system reportedly is used by 70 school clients across the United States. But the situation at Virginia Tech changed all that.
In an age when students are constantly on the move, ClearTXT is designed to catch them on the go, Kaufman said.
Though the software reportedly will work with phones made by just about every major carrier, Siff says the school also recognizes that not every student has access to affordable cell-phone service. In the event that a student or faculty member doesn’t have his or her own cell phone, or is in the market for an alternative carrier, the university has partnered with Cincinnati Bell, a local telephone company, to provide students with a phone, as well as text and voice coverage, for a reduced fee. Unlike with other providers, Siff says, the service offered through Cincinnati Bell is guaranteed to work on campus and throughout the surrounding community.
Though the Virginia Tech tragedy has underscored the benefit of text-messaging and mass notification programs, Siff believes the larger issue isn’t what schools should do in the event of an emergency, but how they reach out to and connect with students in general.
"God forbid anyone should ever have that kind of tragedy ever again, but that’s not the reason to [use text messaging]," said Siff. "We have to reach students within the means in which they live–and that’s by the cell phone."
Other universities currently are experimenting with similar services.
At Coppin State University (CSU) in Baltimore, administrators now offer a text-messaging and emergency-notification service called e2Campus, from Virginia-based Omnilert LLC.
Andrew Bain, director of web and multimedia development at CSU, explains, "Students may not be on a computer checking eMail or the web when an emergency hits. They may not be in their dorm room, either. And, students can’t answer a phone call or check voice mail during class. To be able to send text messages to students wherever they are, warning them of emergencies, is a real breakthrough in student communication."
Penn State University, which adopted a texting system in August, has since transmitted 20 emergency texts on subjects from traffic closures to weather-related cancellations, spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz said.
The university, with 42,000 people on its sprawling main campus in State College, Pa., also transmits information through school web sites and the local public radio station.
Even some smaller schools are getting into the act.
"We launched a cell phone text-message system and within two hours had a tenth of our campus population registered," wrote Ben Vlug, director of information technology for Kuyper College, in an eMail message to eSchool News. "Within 30 seconds, we can have an urgent or emergency message to our people. Since most people have cell phones, I think [these types of systems] cover the most people, and it doesn’t matter where they are–traveling, in a classroom, wherever."
Mass-notification systems are nothing new for schools. For years, K-12 schools and universities have been using automated systems to inform parents of school closures and distribute emergency information or scheduling changes to the local community.
The difference now, however, is that such information doesn’t have to be relegated to a single form of distribution–an automated telephone or eMail message, for example. Instead, by incorporating the use and ubiquity of wireless devices, school leaders can reach as many stakeholders through as many forms of communication as possible.
Robert Bruce is president of North Carolina-based STN AlertNow, which specializes in distributing emergency messages and other notifications to stakeholders in schools and their surrounding communities.
Of the more than 25 million messages his clients–which include Carnegie Mellon and Penn State universities, as well as several K-12 schools–send out each year, Bruce says only about 15 percent can be construed as actual emergencies.
When emergency calls are issued, he says, parents and other subscribers receive a special "411" code on their cell phones, or wherever the message is received, informing them of the call’s importance.
"I want to get information on my child, but I don’t necessarily want to be called all of the time," said Bruce. By using the 411 code, he said, the company is able to impress upon parents who might be sitting in a meeting, or in their cars on the way to work, that the message demands their immediate attention.
Currently, the company offers two pricing structures. For schools that only want to use the service in the event of emergencies, he said, the cost is $1 per student, per year. For schools that would like to use the system to send out other types of announcements, including lunch menus, meeting schedules, and other notes, the cost is $3 per student, per year.
As with many of the players in this emerging field, he says, STN AlertNow’s messages can be beamed to a variety of wired and wireless devices, including cell phones, personal digital assistants, computers, landline telephones, and other devices.
Sanjay Manandhar, founder and chief technology officer of Aerva Inc., yet another mass-notification company, said the key for schools is to develop "multimodal" forms of communication.
"Whenever you have a security event, it’s not sufficient enough anymore to have a simple [public address] system," he said, adding, "There is no single way to get the information out there. It’s got to be redundant."
After launching its first security application in 2004, Aerva reportedly has worked with a number of K-12 schools and higher-education institutions to create customized solutions that are capable of communicating with many methods of distribution, from standard eMail and text-messaging options to the transmission of important messages on electronic billboards and signs throughout campus.
Since the Virginia Tech shootings, Manandhar says, his company has seen a significant swell in interest from schools. To attract more school clients, and realizing that budgets in the education community are tight, Aerva has reduced the price of its services for schools dramatically, cutting prices by as much as 50 percent in some cases. And, unlike some emergency providers that require schools to manage the service on their own, he said, Aerva hosts the program on its own dedicated group of servers–a move, he says, that reduces the likelihood of technical headaches and other network-related hang-ups.
Digital signs are another way school leaders are trying to improve communication across their campuses.
At Bryant University in Rhode Island, for example, administrators have been working with NEC Solutions to install as many as 50 digital displays in strategic locations–including dormitories, classroom buildings, and other common areas–across the 3,000-student campus.
Phil Lombardi, the university’s director of academic computing and media services, said the electronic billboards are an effective means of capturing students’ attention.
After new fire-code restrictions prevented the university from posting paper-based messages and billboards in glass-enclosed cases–the fallout from a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people–administrators began looking for other, more effective means of communicating with students.
"We realized that students weren’t always reading their eMails and that we needed to find another way to get the message out," said Lombardi.
Since installing its first electronic billboard in 2003, he says, the university has invested more than $50,000 in digital signage. Used throughout the campus to display a variety of messages–from campus-wide alerts to community events, and even the results of student government elections–each sign is connected to a web-based network that enables students and teachers to upload messages. Once a message is uploaded, it is placed in a queue, where a school administrator then must approve it for posting.
Where such systems used to be seen as a superfluous expenditure in many schools, Doug Albregts, NEC’s vice president for sales and marketing, says the shootings at Virginia Tech have educators looking at the advantages of digital signs in a whole new light.
"The events of a few weeks ago have convinced schools that this is no longer an option," he said. "They have to have it."
At Bryant, Lombardi says the importance of digital billboards in the event of an emergency is obvious–"the more chances you have to notify students and teachers, the better." But the technology needn’t sit idle, waiting for something to happen, either. When administrators at Bryant aren’t using the boards to broadcast important safety notices, he says, the school uses them for a variety of other purposes, such as making announcements and posting schedule changes.
Because the boards are managed via a central network, he says, they can be configured to broadcast one mass message, as in the case in an emergency, or tailored to broadcast individual messages relevant to their exact location on campus. The messages also can be broadcast on the school’s two cable-access channels.
In the future, Lombardi says, the school plans an extension of its current program that will enable administrators to rebroadcast the messages appearing on the university’s digital signs as screensavers on idle networked computers.
"It just gives us another way to communicate with our community," he said, adding, "We’re trying to hit them in as many places as we can."
At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), administrators are experimenting with the power of campus-wide intercoms as a means of warning students and teachers of a problem on campus.
Steve Clark, the university’s director of classroom support, said the network-connected devices, which currently are installed in some 264 classrooms throughout the 22,000-student campus, originally were purchased as a means of helping faculty communicate with the university’s IT staff in the event of technical glitches in the classroom.
But in light of the Virginia Tech shootings, he says, the school also has come to see the devices as essential to helping maintain order and security on campus. Given the need for better communication, he says, the school currently has work orders to install the systems in 100 additional classrooms by year’s end.
The technology being used by UNCC comes from Illinois-based Digital Acoustics. Chris Coffin, the company’s CEO, said the technology is ideal for school systems because, in most cases, the IP-based intercoms can simply plug into their existing infrastructure.
"Literally all you have to do is plug in the box and plug it into the computer," he said.
Where PA systems have long been a staple in many K-12 schools, the sheer acreage of most college campuses for a long time has kept university officials from creating similarly effective address systems. With IP-based intercoms, Coffin said, that’s no longer the case. Given the nature of the technology–it’s all internet-based–buildings don’t have to be on the same campus, let alone the same state, to communicate with a central command center.
At $200 to $300 per classroom, the intercoms can pose a significant up-front cost, UNCC’s Clark said. But when compared with the monthly charges schools would incur by installing traditional analog telephone service, he said, the "price is almost negligible."
Using a central console that routes live and prerecorded voice messages through a server housed on the school’s central communications network, the intercom system enables administrators to make immediate, campus-wide announcements, draft and prerecord legally sound emergency notifications, and communicate with individuals in classrooms to address specific needs. Specially installed panic buttons also add another way for teachers and students to alert school officials in the event of an emergency. "It really quadruples the amount of emergency call-boxes we have on campus," said Clark.
The system also reportedly is being integrated with communications offices and local police and fire stations, so emergency first responders can connect directly to the school.
As the university continues to install more devices in the coming months, Clark said, his team already is finding new ways to incorporate the technology. Using a special record feature, he said, many instructors have expressed a desire to use the system as a means of preserving lectures that can be posted as podcasts to the school’s web site. Another option is to record lectures through the system and have them immediately transcribed in real time for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, he said.
Though it’s encouraging that university officials plan to use the system on a daily basis, Clark said, true peace of mind comes from having the technology available in the event of an emergency.
"We want to make sure that all students and teachers know how to use the system," he concluded.