Federal law requires colleges and universities to have strong emergency notification and response plans in place.

U.S. colleges are upgrading their policies on emergency notification, response, and evacuation. The efforts are driven in part by the federal College Opportunity and Affordability Act, which was signed into law in August 2008.

The legislation followed a rash of school shootings, most tragically including the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were shot and killed. But except in terms of volume, Virginia Tech’s tragedy wasn’t unique.

Last September, for example, two Delaware State University students were shot near a campus dining hall, and authorities scrambled to keep students in their dorms and tell the campus community exactly what had transpired. Updates were posted on the school’s web site, but only a sliver of the student body got the message.

This year, university officials are more confident in their ability to inform, and inform quickly. Delaware State is one of many universities across the nation that are using emergency notification technology that instantly sends messages to students’ and faculty’s cell phones and eMail in-boxes. During the school’s next emergency, the campus’s 3,700 students and 600 faculty and staff will be alerted within minutes of a violent act or extreme weather.

Delaware State officials and students said last year’s shooting did not dissolve the campus into panic, but students and faculty were not clear on the details of the attack.

“[The emergency system] will definitely help us notify the students quicker than we have in the past,” said James Overton, Delaware State’s police chief. The eMail and phone messages won’t just tell students about an emergency on campus, Overton said. The warnings also will include instructions to find shelter, evacuate, or stay put.

“Not only do you have to tell them what’s going on; you also have to tell them what to do,” he said.