PHOENIX - After a man robbed a bank near Northern Arizona University and fled toward the school last Friday, cell phones buzzed around campus.
Text messages told students, faculty and staff what had happened and later offered a brief description of the suspect with a link to a Web site with more details and a photo.
It was the Flagstaff school’s first use of its “NAU Alert” text message system, which launched in August.
“It worked amazingly well,” said Lisa Nelson, director of public affairs at NAU. “This is brand new for us, and it was a situation where it was important for us to get a description out as soon as possible.”
Acting on lessons from the Virginia Tech tragedy, Arizona’s universities are adding text message alert systems. Students, faculty and staff who elect to participate will hear about emergencies on their cell phones.
Arizona State University added its system on Friday, and the University of Arizona planned to follow suit this week.
At NAU, about 3,600 phone numbers are registered for notifications, Nelson said. All students, faculty and staff can also sign up a parent’s or spouse’s phone as well.
Several parents called NAU police to check on students after the notification went out, Nelson said.
NAU also will send text message alerts when icy weather forces the school to cancel classes, Nelson said.
Two days after launching its text message alerts, ASU had about 1,000 cell phone numbers in its system, said Leah Hardesty, a university spokeswoman.
“We needed something that could reach a mobile device and could reach people before they are on campus,” Hardesty said. “And knowing that text messaging is widely used by students, we thought that would be a good method to reach them.”
ASU is getting the emergency alerts for free through a contract with Verizon Wireless to provide cellular service discounts to students and employees.
NAU and UA have contracted with Leesburg, Va.-based e2Campus for text message alerts. NAU is spending about $10,000 per year. UA did not release cost figures.
E2Campus has contracts with 300 schools, compared with about 25 before the Virginia Tech massacre, said Bryan Crum, the company’s vice president of marketing.
“Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy like this to realize that the current way of doing things is not sufficient,” Crum said.
After Virginia Tech put a spotlight on school communication, universities scrambled to find new ways to reach people. In the past, Arizona schools have used e-mail and Web site alerts to communicate during emergencies, but the technologies require people to be at a computer.
That’s why university officials were drawn to text messaging as a way to instantly send messages to thousands of pockets and purses, they say.
“We want to have a means to communicate with the entire campus as quickly as possible,” said Johnny Cruz, a UA spokesman. “This tool will allow us to do that.”