Computers at U. Nebraska-Lincoln Will Warn Students of Danger

April 27, 2007
System would deliver alerts onto screens of university computers

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln will soon unveil a new alert system designed to speedily warn students and their parents of possible danger on campus.

"UNL Alert" will be available starting in early May. Alerts will flash onto the screens of university computers, notifying the campus if there's a tornado warning, a bomb threat or a gunman on the loose.

Parents can get the same emergency notification on their home or work computers if they download UNL Alert from the university Web site.

The new alert system is expected to work faster than UNL's old method of campuswide e-mail -- lessening the chance of a delay like the twohour lag between Seung Hui Cho's first killing on the Virginia Tech campus on April 16 and that university's e-mail to students.

"We'd probably have the entire campus notified in a minute," said UNL Police Chief Owen Yardley.

The new desktop computer warning system is just one way local colleges warn students of possible emergencies, security officials said.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha can use a public address system to broadcast messages to every academic building -- and soon every residence hall -- in the event of an emergency, said Wade Robinson, UNO associate dean of student affairs.

Creighton University is looking into text-messaging technology to see if sending messages to students' cell phones would improve its alert system, said Rick McAuliffe, director of public safety at Creighton.

All three universities fall back on e-mail as the cheapest, easiest way to communicate with students, although they acknowledged that it's far from perfect.

"Some read it every minute," Robinson said of campus e-mails. "Some people don't read it once a week."

The UNL Alert system will be quicker than e-mail because the university has designed eight simple messages to warn students about everything from threatening weather to a hazardous waste spill, said spokeswoman Kelly Bartling.

In the event of a bomb threat like the one received Friday at UNL, a police dispatcher would pull up that alert, insert "Othmer Hall" as the location and send it out. The threat would almost instantly pop up on the desktops of campus computers.

The university might then follow with a lengthier explanation in an e-mail message.

One possible drawback to UNL Alert: Students and professors will be encouraged but not required to download the alert software, meaning the system won't be universally used on campus.

Every way to notify students has drawbacks, Yardley said, which is why UNL and other schools try to use different notification methods.

When the bomb threat to Othmer Hall was received, the university activated the building's fire alarm, sent out two e-mails starting an hour after the event and posted information on the UNL Web site.

Creighton is looking into text messaging as a way to add to its current notification system, which includes e-mail and voice mail.

McAuliffe said college campuses are safe places, statistically far less violent than the country in general.

College officials should learn from the Virginia Tech massacre while also remembering that students die in ways that rarely lead the evening news, he said.

"Things like alcohol, traffic accidents -- the routine dangers -- pose a much larger threat than some of these sensational things that rarely happen," McAuliffe said. "You have to put (Virginia Tech) in the proper context, realize it's horrific . . . and realize there's no single answer to it.

"Everybody's doing a lot of soul searching now, and the truth is, there's no easy solution."