UI exploring text alert for emergencies

By Angelina Cole

By reviewing emergency responses and how they can be improved upon, the University and local police are pursuing the adoption of new technology, including text message alerts.

And now, members of the student body are pushing for this new system after the massacre at Virginia Tech.

Nathan VanHoudnos, graduate student, founded the Facebook group “Emergency Text Message System.”

The group is petitioning for the addition of a mass text message sent to students in case of an emergency.

“It doesn’t stop someone from coming on campus, but it will lower the number of people affected by an attack,” he said.

VanHoudnos said the University already has access to students’ cell phone numbers. To put a network like this into place would only take a cell phone with SMS (text message capabilities) and the recipients to preference text messages as a way of receiving emergency information, he said.

“(An emergency text message system) is one of the primary possibilities, and it was well underway before the events at Virginia Tech,” said Mark Briggs, campus risk manager.

Briggs has begun to work with VanHoudnos to quicken the process of adopting the right kind of text message system provider.

“We’ve been in the process of looking at that type of communication system,” said Krystal Fitzpatrick, interim chief of police.

“We’ve been in the process of adopting it for some time,” she said.

Fitzpatrick and VanHoudnos hope that this new network of emergency protocol will be implemented sometime by the end of the year or by the beginning of the fall semester.

“A rapid communication system like (text messaging) would be good on a college campus,” said Police Training Institute Director Tom Dempsey.

However, Briggs is not as optimistic as Fitzpatrick and VanHoudnos. There are too many variables to set a specific time, he said. However, the concept remains a very high priority of the administration.

“It will be done in a timely manner, sooner rather than later,” he said.

Another issue that raises concern with the adoption of an emergency text message system is how strict the administration will be in terms of defining an emergency and letting the network be used for regular mass mailings and spam-like advertisement.

“There are free systems out there,” Briggs said. “The catch is that we would have to let them send two advertisements per day to the networks, and we’re just not willing to do that. We have no interest in this system of advertising and routine information (within our emergency protocol).”

In terms of defining an emergency, Briggs hopes that this will be one of the many user preferences to be set by students and faculty upon adopting this network.

One thing is certain for Briggs and VanHoudnos: A strictly e-mail system will not remain sufficient as technology becomes more advanced.

“There is no way to do the masses, the tens of thousands, with e-mail,” Briggs said. “This new technology means to notify people right now. The more ways we have of doing that, the more success.”