Colleges Look For Faster Ways To Get Urgent Emergency Messages To Students

Tuesday, April 17th 2007, 8:05 am
By: News On 6

The two hour delay between the time when shots first rang out at Virginia Tech and when officials e-mailed a warning to its students has thrown a spotlight on how schools can get critical news out faster in a crisis.

``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 Monday, during the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history. Some students said their first notice of trouble came in an e-mail at 9:26 a.m., after the second shooting had begun.

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

The University of Georgia has joined a small but growing number of institutions that are testing similar systems. Their service, provided by the California-based NTI Group, is voluntary and allows students to plug in various phone numbers and e-mail 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 they prepare.

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

If you have family or a professional connection with Virginia Tech, the News On 6 would like to hear from you. Please contact us at 918-732-6105 or email the News On 6.

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