- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Virginia Tech tragedy spurred a year of sweeping technological changes as campuses nationwide upgraded security to deliver emergency alerts to cell phones and instant-messaging accounts and prepared to equip students with personal alarm systems.

“Your mobile phone is one of the most powerful safety tools that exists,” said Raju Rishi of Rave Wireless, a New York company that specializes in wireless alert systems for higher education.

More than 95 percent of college students own cell phones, Mr. Rishi said.

“Text messaging is a tool by which they organize their lives,” he said.

Virginia Tech, which has about 28,000 students at its Blacksburg, Va., campus, issued several e-mail alerts the day of the shooting and updated its Web site with warnings to stay inside and away from windows. But some student said they were already in transit and unaware of the situation — prompting colleges throughout the U.S. to re-evaluate how they share information in emergencies.

In July, Virginia Tech implemented VT Alerts, which allows administrators to contact students, faculty and staff in four ways: via text messages on their cell phone or mobile device; via instant messages using AOL, MSN and Yahoo services; via calls to cell phones, home or office numbers; and via e-mails to non-university addresses. Those who sign up for VT Alerts can list up to three contact methods and rank them in order of priority. When an emergency alert is issued, they are asked to confirm receipt of the message.

“Our society is changing; the way we receive information is changing,” Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said. “Any college or university needs to stay attuned with those technology changes.”

So far, about 21,000 people — about half of the faculty and staff and two-thirds of the student body — have signed up for the new alert system, Mr. Owczarski said. Virginia Tech had been looking into the system since fall 2006, he added.

A few hours away at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the school of more than 20,000 students has adopted a similar program called UVA Alerts uses text messages, RSS feeds and e-mail. In addition, the school has installed large LCD screens in public areas that can be used to broadcast information during an emergency.

This summer, the university plans to install a siren system like the one used at Virginia Tech and other campuses, said Marjorie Sidebottom, director of the office of emergency preparedness. UVa. also spent about $250,000 altering the locks on exit doors across campus — the shooter used chains to lock authorities out of Norris Hall before he began shooting.

About 40 percent of the university population has signed up for UVA Alerts, Ms. Sidebottom said. Colin Hood, an 18-year-old freshman, founded Hoos Ready, a group that encourages people to enroll in the system by handing out free pens and T-shirts to those who sign up. Mr. Hood said he decided to get involved last fall while sitting at the university’s annual convocation for incoming students.

“It was just like, wow — this could happen to us,” he said. “We’re so close, we’re 2½ hours away. Four years ago, that student sat in a convocation just like this.”

Last fall, Howard University implemented AlertHU, which includes cell-phone calls, texts and e-mails. Around the same time, George Washington University adopted GW Alert, which enables Windows-powered personal computers to receive an emergency crawl across the bottom of computer screens. The program is installed on all university-owned computers and available for download on others.

Campus Police Chief Michael McNair said administrators at American University decided to install their own text alert system to have more flexibility and control. The college is also offering RaveGuardian, a product that enables students to trigger a “passive” alert that contacts police when it is not turned off within a set period of time.

The University of Maryland in College Park issued emergency text messages under its UMD Alert system for the first time in September to alert students to a carjacking, police spokesman Paul Dillon said.

“The reason we sent it was it was a carjacking, a weapon was involved and the car was last seen headed onto campus,” Mr. Dillon said.

An emergency notification system is only valuable if administrators use it properly — balancing students’ need to know with the danger of inundating them with too many alerts that could cause them to opt out of the program, said Jonathan Kassa, executive director of the nonprofit group Security on Campus Inc.

“It’s the same type of information you want to have shared in your own neighborhood where students live and come from,” he said. “Why shouldn’t they have that same type of information on campus?”

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