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University Implements Text Messaging Alerts

November 18, 2010

At 8:41 Tuesday morning, more than 32,000 students at Ohio State University in Columbus received a text message over the course of about 15 minutes on their cell phones. The message was the same to each student: Bomb threat.

Students were warned that four main-campus buildings were being evacuated and searched due to a tip received at the FBI headquarters in New York City.

Although no weapons were found, authorities in the area said the text messages sent from the Buckeye Alert System helped them clear the area and continue their investigation without interruption.

Exactly 11 minutes before the first messages were sent, a new box appeared on myGate, the University's web portal.

The box, located at the bottom right hand corner of a user's home page and titled Mobile Alerts, gives students the option to type their cell phone numbers into the box, putting them into a pool of numbers that receive emergency text message alerts in the event of a situation on or off campus of possible threat to students.

Linda Miller, chief information officer, said the implementation of the alert program addresses a gap in communication about emergencies between the University and its students.

"With the advent of this recent contract and the customization to our campus, we are now able to fill that gap," she said. "So, we are now offering a text messaging service for campus alerts."

           

Miller said University officials had tossed around the idea of the program for a while, but it was not until the money had been acquired that the idea became a reality.

She said a group of people from various departments across the University chose the program SchoolMessenger because it offered the best product for the cheapest price and because other schools in the area had positive things to say about it.

 

"When we purchased it, there was a committee made up of individuals from across campus that looked at it," Miller said.

That committee tested the system, logging into myGate and verifying their cell phone numbers with the company, she said, and had only good things to say about its punctuality and clarity.

David Devoss, chief of Murray State Police and director of emergency management, said he thinks the program will be successful and comes at the best time possible in the information age in which we live.

In the communication room, a large open space with walls covered by television monitors, viewing video from each corner of campus, one operator sits at the controls.

It is that person, according to Devoss, who controls the three-tiered emergency notification system of which Media Alerts is now apart.

Devoss said when an emergency occurs and under the direction of a chief officer such as himself, the operator will send an alert via the outdoor speakers, the voiceover IP phones on desks, and now, text messages.

"The text messaging portion of our overall emergency communications systems was the third, but perhaps not final, piece of our systems," he said.

Devoss said the text messages fulfill a charge to communicate emergencies with all students.

"Primarily, if we have students walking or out of doors, we have them covered with the outdoor system, next we have the Cisco Voice Over IP phones that cover everyone who is in an office, so who's next? Commuters. The text system would allow for us to reach the commuter students," he said.

Jeff Steen, assistant director of emergency management, said Public Safety is given the opportunity to use text messages in a variety of ways with the system they bought, however some issues can occur.

"We can push out a predetermined message, or we can compose a message and send that out, too. It will match what we broadcast over the PA systems and phones," he said. "However, when we look at text messaging, we do not control those devices that throw it out there. We have to go through the cell phone companies. In some instances, some universities have found that cell phones are so busy that there is a delay of many minutes. It may be that the phones are in high use."

Don Robertson, vice president of student affairs, said the new service shows Murray State is serious about safety. He noted the importance of of signing up.

"I think it's a very important element to add," he said. "Now this is only as good as cell service. It's only going to work if you sign up for it. If you choose not to sign up for it then obviously you're not going to receive the text messages."

Commuter students agreed the system could be useful directly to them.

Janie Stenberg, freshman from Dexter, Ky., said having emergency texts sent directly to her phone would have been useful during the tornado warning the University broadcasted several weeks ago. "I woke up at 8 a.m. and drove to campus for my first class only to find that students and faculty were responding to a tornado warning," Stenberg said. "All of my morning classes had been canceled. I think the system will be beneficial to commuters because it can inform them of emergencies ahead of time, and they will know to stay safely at home."