Utah universities turn to cell phones in emergency

Sept. 26, 2008
Officials say mass notification is just once piece of a larger emergency management system

More than a year after a mass shooting at a Virginia university triggered a national dialogue about campus security, Utah universities have rolled out emergency notification systems that direct voice and text messages to thousands of cell phones, land lines and e-mail accounts in the event of a crisis, heavy snow, power failure ... or visit from Godzilla.

University of Utah officials recently deployed an inflatable version of the city-incinerating monster in their campaign to get all students, faculty and staff to sign up for their new system. They should provide their preferred mode of electronic contact and which e-mail addresses and phone numbers to use. The idea is to enable officials to put helpful information in the hands of the campus community as fast as possible when disaster strikes.

"There is so much access to information. If something happens, students will post blogs and text messages. We want to get accurate information out early," said new emergency management director Les Chatelain, who spent 30 years in the U.'s health promotion and education department before switching jobs last year.

The U. program won kudos from one professor who studies crisis communications.

"It's better for people to know what's really happening than [to] let rumors fill that void," said Suzanne Horsley, an assistant professor in the communication department. "I would rather err on the side of providing information to the interested public. I think most people would treat that information seriously."

While few believe emergency notification would have prevented Seung-Hui Cho's murder of 32 on the Virginia Tech campus on April 16, 2007, Horsley highlighted a number of incidents where instant mass notification would serve the community well.

She singled out last year's hospital shooting, which left a corrections officer dead and an armed inmate on the loose. Within minutes authorities could have broadcasted the name and description of the perpetrator, whose facial tattoos included swastikas.

"In the less dangerous incidents, say there's a flood in a classroom building, it would help to reduce congestion and confusion. 'The power is out in the library, so don't go there,' " Horsley said.

The authority to release emergency messages rests in part with Chatelain's boss, vice president for administrative services Arnold Combe, who would act on information provided by public safety officials. Since the system went up last month, U. police have alerted Combe's office five times. All these incidents, which involved reports of an abduction, assault robbery and TRAX collision, resolved within 30 minutes, negating the need to issue a campuswide alert, Capt. Lynn Mitchell said.

"This is a work in progress," Mitchell said. "It's not perfected. As we go along we'll work out the issues that come along."

Emergency notification has been an anxiety-provoking subject at recent board of trustees meetings, where top U. leadership grappled with potential downsides, such as mass messages incapacitating the phone system or prompting people to make bad choices.

"The tension is you want to give enough information to be helpful, but you don't want to cause undue alarm," trustees chairman Randy Dryer said. "Often initial information is not accurate."

Officials stressed mass notification is just once piece of a larger emergency-management system that includes a new network of flat-screen televisions in gathering places around campus and low-tech options, such as vehicle-mounted loudspeakers and foot messengers that would be dispatched if power fails.

The U.'s new system asks students to indicate where they spend most of their time on campus when they sign up online. As of last week about 13 percent of students and 20 percent of employees had signed up. Preliminary numbers suggest students favor cell phones and text messages, while employees favor office phones and cells phones, according to Chatelain.

At Utah State University, which implemented a similar program, about 1,500 have signed up, mostly freshman who filled out forms at registration.