Students critique emergency text system

By Paul Biasco

In the May 1 edition of The Daily Illini, the article titled “Students critique emergency text messaging system,” Lindsay Kessler was quoted as having said, “We’re very honest about it.”

The quotation should have read, “They were very honest about it.”

The Daily Illini regrets this error.

The following is the story as it appeared in print that day.

Seven University students recently outlined what they believe to be shortcomings of the emergency test messaging system after conducting a study to evaluate its efficiency, but University spokesperson Robin Kaler said the system would be effective in the case of an emergency.

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The students also evaluated possible alternatives to the current system in a study titled “University of Illinois Campus Emergency Wireless Project.”

As of Feb. 22, 45 percent of University students were registered for the emergency text system, according to the study.

The students contacted Campus Information Technology and Educational Services to inquire about tests on the system in the fall of 2007.

“We’re very honest about it,” said Lindsay Kessler, a senior in LAS and one of the members of the study.

They found that one of the limitations with the text message system, which was donated to the University by an alumnus at Mutare Software, is that it relies on the recipient’s cell phone network’s availability.

During one test they found that students with Blackberry devices would not have received the emergency text message because its service was temporarily down. In another test, students with Verizon cell phones would not have received the text.

If an incident on campus would occur, the text message would read, “There has been an incident at _____. If you are outside, seek shelter. If you are inside, stay inside,” according to the students’ report.

The University has also worked with the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District to put a system in place to alert students of an emergency on the scrolling signs on campus buses, Kaler said.

“We talked to Lt. Vernon ‘Skip’ Frost, University Police, and he said we need to start being proactive,” said Robert Gregg, graduate student and member of the study.

Police know what to do in the case of an emergency, but the problem is that students do not, Gregg said. A proactive approach to safety before an emergency occurs is best, said Gregg.

“Don’t think that if you signed up for the text that you are good,” Kaler said. “You need to be aware of your surroundings.”

The University aims to notify 20 percent of the campus population in the case of an emergency, expecting the rest of campus to be notified through word of mouth, according to the study.

Kaler added that even if just a few people in a room get the emergency text, they are going to alert the rest of the room.

The study stated other issues with the University system, including cell phone systems not handling the amount of sent text messages and cell phones not receiving service in many University buildings.

“I think it’s a big eye-opener,” Gregg said.

Kaler said poor cell phone service in classrooms and basements is not an issue because there is a system in place to notify classrooms during an emergency. She added that there is a “telephone tree” system in place where a call would be made to the building and faculty would run to alert the classrooms in the basement.

The University is looking to incorporate other forms of media into the emergency alert system. Some ideas include a notification through a pop-up window on the University Web site, emergency sirens, notification of mass media and weather radios.

Kaler said the Web site notification system will only work if you are on a University page. The system is expected to be in place within the next month, she said.

“We want something that the University can control,” said Erinn Mitchell, senior in LAS and member of the study.

The report has been forwarded to CITES, Gregg said.

“We are optimistic about what the University is doing,” Gregg added.