- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

Technology companies have been swamped with calls as college campuses across the country review their emergency response and alert systems in the wake of Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech.

“There’s e-mail, text-messaging phones, Second Life, MySpace, Facebook — those are all tools by which they communicate, and I think universities are struggling with how to leverage those different media types,” said Raju Rishi, chief operating officer and co-founder of Rave Wireless, a New York firm that sells cell phone-based security and academic software to schools.

In the days after the shootings, some have questioned Virginia Tech administrators for relying on e-mail alerts to notify students of potential danger — a strategy that failed to reach students who were in class or already on their way to campus. Text-messaging alert systems have been a hot topic since an estimated 90 percent of college students have cell phones, which can send messages using little signal and bandwidth.

“You want to say, ‘I’m going to get 75 percent of the constituents with text, another 5 to 10 percent with television, another 5 with Facebook and another 5 with other tools,’ ” Mr. Rishi said of schoolwide emergency-notification plans. “But that phone has to be the centerpiece because it is the key.”

Rave sells several plans, the most basic of which can be used on any cell phone. The company has received between 100 and 150 customer leads since Monday, which Mr. Rishi called “the tip of the iceberg.”

Similarly, “the phone has been on fire” at AtHoc Emergency Notification and Alerting Systems, said Ly Tran, vice president of corporate development at the Burlingame, Calif., company. Like Rave, AtHoc offers sells a hosted Web platform that enables universities to customize and send large-scale emergency alerts.

“If an incident happens in Building X, you want people in Building X to get different instructions than other people,” Mr. Tran explained.

AtHoc can send alerts to any computer on the network, using its speakers as a siren, he said, adding that software alert systems are cost-effective for universities to implement since they rely on existing networks. “The infrastructure for mass reach is there. Our software can reach them.”

In the D.C. area, American and George Washington universities encourage students to sign up for the District’s Alert DC system, a citywide service that sends text messages during emergencies and can be targeted to specific campuses. Georgetown University is looking into a text-alert system and is conducting a pilot test in the fall, a spokeswoman said.

But implementing cell phone-based notification systems are only successful insofar as students submit their information and sign up for it.

“The challenges that universities face is, heretofore, they have not captured student-level phone number data,” said Paul Langhorst, vice president of operations and co-founder of GroupCast Messaging Systems, a St. Louis company that provides emergency-notification services to grade schools and colleges.

While it’s easy for K-12 schools to be locked down, and administrators have access to parents’ phone numbers, it’s nearly impossible to lock down a college, where the burden is on students to hand over optional cell phone numbers, Mr. Langhorst noted. “But I think Monday’s incident is going to cause students to be more willing to give their cell phone numbers.”

In the case of Virginia Tech, it would have taken about 20 minutes to send text messages to 25,000 cell phones, Mr. Langhorst said.

Alerts are only half the battle. Monday’s tragedy also has caused people to ask how technology could be used to improve law-enforcement response.

“The police never made a single contact [that day] with this sadly deranged guy,” said David Kimmel, director of engineering at Fredericksburg, Va.-based NetTalon. “That was certainly because they had no idea what was going on inside.”

The 3-year-old company uses floor plans, motion sensors and existing cameras to create a virtual Web platform that lets police officers track what is going on in a building and isolate an intruder. The key is that, unlike existing technology, the program can be accessed on any authorized computer, which means responders can save time by following events en route to the scene, Mr. Kimmel said.

Unlike Monday, officers could arrive knowing where exactly the danger is in the building.

“Would it have saved everybody? Heck no,” Mr. Kimmel said. “Somebody intent on killing and killing themselves is going to get away with something. Could it have mitigated it? I think there is a real possibility.”

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