Universities' emergency alert systems evolve after Virginia Tech shootings - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Universities' emergency alert systems evolve after Virginia Tech shootings

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Posted: Friday, April 20, 2012 4:28 pm | Updated: 1:24 pm, Sat Apr 21, 2012.

With an armed robber reported on the Tempe campus in December, an Arizona State University system provided text-message alerts, complemented by email blasts, Facebook posts and tweets, until the threat had passed.

“Stay vigilant,” the final alert said, lifting a recommendation that people stay indoors. “Call 911 if subject is seen.”

When a lesser incident such as an unexpected building closure affects students, faculty and staff, a separate system spreads the word via text and Twitter.

These are just two examples of how emergency alert systems put into place after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings have evolved into multi-platform tools to share critical information during emergencies.

“The safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors to our campuses is our most important priority,” Arizona State University spokeswoman Julie Newberg said in an email. “ASU Alert is an important tool for providing information to the ASU community in the event of an emergency.”

E2Campus, a Virginia-based company, manages alert systems for all three Arizona universities and works with more than 800 schools across the country.

Northern Arizona University recently used its system to alert students that the campus would be closed the Monday after spring break because of heavy snow.

Cynthia Brown, coordinator in NAU’s Office of Public Affairs, said the university uses social media as well but prefers text messaging because that way officials know how many people will receive an alert.

“We’re all trying to find the most effective way to communicate with students, faculty and staff,” Brown said. “We want to keep people safe and informed.”

Nearly 6,000 people at NAU have signed up for text alerts, while ASU and the University of Arizona have 26,000 and 15,000 participants, respectively.

UA Police Cmdr. Brian Seastone said multiple people, from campus administrators to police dispatchers, are authorized to send alerts.

“It allows us to always have someone immediately available to send out alerts,” Seastone said.

Next semester, he said, opting in to the program will become part of student registration.

“We are hopeful that we’ll have more people, more information will be spread to the campus community,” Seastone said.

Coconino Community College employs a text and email alert combination to reach students and staff. The college can also take over and send a direct message to any computer on its system, said Paul Wilkins, the college’s security supervisor.

“Any tool that is considered a mass communication tool that you can use in the interest of protecting your students and all the people on campus should be a priority,” Wilkins said. “This is just another tool. Granted, it’s a big tool.”

E2Campus is urging client institutions to adopt new programs allowing people to send anonymous tips to police via text message and to respond to alerts if they are hurt or in danger.

“It’s really moved from text messaging to a complete multimodal approach,” said Bryan Crum, a company spokesman.

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