Va. Tech Tests Warning System, But Not All Get the Message

Oct. 15, 2007
Many say they weren't aware that alert was just a test

RICHMOND, Va. -- Hundreds of people reported they did not receive a message sent out during a trial run of Virginia Tech's expanded emergency alert system on Wednesday, though it was not clear whether all were signed up for the service, a university spokesman said.

The "VT Alerts" system sent text messages, voice mails, e-mails and online instant messages to the more than 18,000 people - about 60 percent of the university community - who signed up.

The Blacksburg school followed up with a campus-wide e-mail survey seeking feedback within hours of the test run and 711 people reported that they never received an alert, university spokesman Mark Owczarski said.

"It can be that they never signed up for it, or they signed up and they dropped out, or U.S. Cellular was having hiccups," he said. "It could mean a whole bunch of things."

The school already had been looking into expanding its alert system when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and then himself on April 16. Plans began last fall, after an escaped prisoner accused of killing a hospital guard fled to the Tech area and caused the campus to shut down.

During the April shootings, the university relied mainly on e-mails, campus warning sirens and a message on Tech's Web site to alert students to the danger.

The expanded service gives subscribers the option of receiving their alerts by up to three delivery methods, and each subscriber designates a primary delivery method, such as a text message.

An analysis by a California provider of mass notification systems, 3n (National Notification Network), showed it took 18 minutes to send the test messages to all subscribers via their primary point of contact, and 31 minutes to send out alerts via all the contact methods, company spokesman Marc Ladin said.

There may have been external issues that delayed or prevented people from receiving the alerts, such as phone carrier delays delivering text messages, instant message systems that aren't configured to accept messages from the university and cell phone reception problems, Owczarski said.

Virginia Tech and 3n will review data from the test and the survey, Owczarski said. If there are problems within the system, adjustments will be made, he said.

"I would say that we're still learning," he said. "But it may just be that there is no such thing as a system that is perfect."

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