Around Country, Schools Reconsidering Mass Notification Technologies

April 19, 2007
From warning sirens to phone call and email solutions, administrators and security review options

Cell phone text messages. Loudspeakers on towers. Cameras that detect suspicious activity. After the Virginia Tech massacre, colleges and universities are considering these and other measures to alert thousands of students across their campuses of emergencies.

The University of Washington in Seattle is weighing whether to use warning sirens. Clemson University in South Carolina recently installed a similar system for weather-related emergencies and now may expand its use.

"You're going to see a nationwide re-evaluation of how to respond to incidents like this," said Jeff Newton, police chief at the University of Toledo.

Chuck Green, director of public safety at the University of Iowa, said school officials were discussing a new outdoor warning system just a day before the Blacksburg shootings. The technology would allow for live voice announcements as well as prerecorded messages.

"We'd like the option to hit one button to reach large numbers of people at one time," he said.

Virginia Tech officials did not send an e-mail warning about a gunman on campus until two hours after the first slayings, drawing criticism that they waited too long and relied on e-mail accounts that students often ignore.

"Would a blast e-mail have been the most effective tool in notifying people of Monday's events?" asked John Holden, a spokesman for DePaul University in Chicago. "Some of the coverage I'm seeing suggests that old-fashioned emergency alarms or broadcast announcements would probably have been more effective."

At many schools, officials want to send text messages to cell phones and digital devices as a faster, more reliable alternative to e-mail.

"We have to find a way to get to students," said Terry Robb, who is overseeing security changes at the University of Missouri.

Many schools consider texting a key way to reach this generation of students. "They consider e-mail snail-mail, and really don't use it as much," said John A. Fry, president of Franklin & Marshall College, near Lancaster, Pa.

The University of Memphis plans to build a system that will act as a schoolwide intercom. Scheduled to be in place by this fall, it will feature speakers mounted on three or four tall poles.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, officials installed more than 100 "smart" cameras after two off-campus slayings. The cameras are linked to computers that detect suspicious situations, such as someone climbing a fence or falling down, and alert not only campus security but also Baltimore city police.

Using text messages would require students to provide personal cell phone numbers - an intrusion that many colleges and universities have until now been reluctant to pursue, said Howard Udell, chief executive officer of Saf-T-Net AlertNow, a Raleigh, N.C., company that specializes in campus security.

Cell phone numbers "have to be as vital as your Social Security number," he said. "I don't think it's been a priority."

The Virginia Tech massacre could bring about widespread safety reforms at colleges and universities, much as the Columbine shootings in Colorado led to security improvements at primary and secondary schools, Udell said.

Text-message alert systems are already in place at some schools, including Penn State University, which started its program in the fall. The system has transmitted 20 emergency messages since its start, ranging from traffic closures to weather-related cancellations or delays.

At the University of Minnesota, 101 of the university's 270 buildings have electronic access devices. A control center can selectively lock and unlock doors, send emergency e-mail and phone messages, and trigger audio tones and messages. Video cameras monitor 871 locations around the university, and radio networks link the university with police.

California State University in San Bernadino, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has experience dealing with emergencies. It was evacuated in 2003 because of wildfires and closed again last year because of high winds.

Officials now have an automatic phone bank that calls every campus extension in an emergency. The school also has a flashing electronic bulletin board at its entrance and a mass e-mailing system.

The university had already been considering a similar system for text-messaging. "What happened at Virginia Tech will certainly accelerate looking into these issues," campus spokesman Joe Gutierrez said.

Despite the safety reviews, nothing short of a total lockdown would ensure the safety of campus communities, said Maj. Frank Knight, assistant chief of police at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

"Stopping an individual with a weapon from getting on campus is nearly impossible," he said. "We can't ever guarantee the security of the campus 100 percent."


Associated Press writers Doug Whiteman in Columbus, Ohio; Ben Greene in Baltimore; Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C.; Michael Tarm in Chicago; Nafeesa Syeed in Des Moines, Iowa; Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia; and Michelle Locke in Berkeley, Calif., contributed to this report.

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