Purdue officials said the test would help researchers better understand how text messages are interrupted.

Scott Ksander, Purdue’s executive director of information technology networks and security, said the university tested the system again this fall and found that about half of the 17,000 messages sent out were delayed. The test text-massage blast was processed in about six minutes, and more than 50,000 eMail alerts were transmitted in 12 minutes, he said. While the eMail messages reached their destination within that 12-minute period, some text messages took up to an hour to deliver.

Ksander said the university would conduct another test during the spring semester, and officials expect better results. Purdue IT employees tracked the delays in real time, he said, and fixed the “congestion management problem” that surfaced.

“It’s important to keep testing,” he said, adding that some Purdue students or faculty that signed up for text alerts don’t have phones with text capabilities. “That’s probably the biggest lesson learned.”

Virginia Tech officials did not discount the possibility of finding a new provider of emergency text-message alerts to replace 3n if the company cannot show that the system will work next time.

“We want to make sure they fix it, so whatever went wrong doesn’t ever happen again,” said Mark Owczarski, a Virginia Tech spokesman, adding that the university is in its second year of a three-year, $200,000 contract with 3n. “And that drives whether or not we’ll stay with 3n. We’re really disappointed with what happened. … It’ll probably behoove Virginia Tech to keep our options open.”

Colleges and universities should use a variety of warning systems, Traynor said, including alerts via television, campus radio, eMail, and the use of sirens that can be heard across the campus.

“They need to have a diverse approach,” he said.

Even service providers agree. With more colleges and universities adopting emergency-alert systems, Lemmon said, campus decision makers should supplement emergency texting with a bevy of other alerts.

“Text-only systems are not the way to go,” she said. “You are going to have problems with a single-mode system. … You can’t rely on one means of communication. There are too many things in the system that can go wrong.”

Virginia Tech officials said the campus’s other emergency systems did function properly during the recent false alarm–campus-wide eMails, electronic message boards in lecture halls, and the university home page kept student updated.

Owczarski said Virginia Tech officials are working with 3n technicians to determine what caused the alert-system failure. The university wants to ensure that students and faculty members know the campus has a reliable way to broadcast alerts in the coming years, he said.

“I would say Virginia Tech still feels the emotional repercussions of last year’s tragedy,” Owczarski said. “I would say we’re no more vulnerable than anyone else in society, but we have a heightened sensitivity to it because of what has happened in the past.”

Links:

Study on text message limitations

Virginia Tech statement