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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Fair
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Could texting work as an alert system at the UW?
Virginia Tech shootings provide impetus for new look at communications methods

Over both nights of Halloween parties in Madison last autumn, more than 200 revelers received periodic text messages updating them about crowd size, traffic conditions, and police directives on and around the ticketed Freakfest gathering on State Street. Named CRASH Madison, this texting system was created in less than two weeks by downtown resident Phil Ejercito. Organizing it as a criticism of the city's new gating policy in 2006, his goal was to provide timely information to partiers with more accuracy and detail than that received over loudspeakers, megaphones, and through the crowd grapevine.

This Halloween texting service also served as a small-scale example of how relatively new and widely adopted technologies can be used as an emergency alert system, a particularly trenchant question following the shootings at Virginia Tech on Apr. 16.

Like many other universities and other institutions around the country, UW-Madison is reviewing its policies and infrastructure for communicating en masse to students and staff in emergency situations, which could run from a violent crime on campus to an impending snowstorm. "A group of departmental representatives met last week," says UW Police Assistant Chief Dale Burke, to tackle this very issue. "We put together a work group that has been assigned to look at what's out there in terms of technology and to sift and winnow through all that's available."

Given the ubiquity of electronic communications used on campus from online social networks to cell phones, policymakers at the UW will be able to create a broad toolbox for an emergency alert system. Moving well beyond the typical broadcast methods, this group is looking particularly at utilizing Facebook and MySpace as one method for direct communication. And... they're also open to exploring texting.

Ejercito says that implementing a campus-wide text alert system -- in which students, faculty and staff would opt-in to receive emergency messages on the cell phones -- is one obvious option.

"The concept isn't all that new or foreign to peoples' minds," he says, particularly given its growing use in festival and concert environments. "Colleges should be looking at that example of how to make these things part of the college experience, and for a very important reason."

"It's unfortunate it requires a precipitating event for people to start talking about this kind of emergency system," Ejercito continues. "I'm glad they are talking about it now."

Indeed, texting alert systems have been getting many close looks recently, particularly in the university context. Many institutions were already in the process of creating them, including Virginia Tech, before the shootings two weeks ago.

Florida State University in Tallahassee has been in the process of implementing a such a system, one major impetus there being hurricanes. Director of Media Relations Browning Brooks says that over 20,000 students (on of a campus of 40,000) have already registered their cell phone numbers with the university's system, along with some 10,000 faculty and staff. "I know that now we can contact thousands of people," she says, though the system is by no means a singular or infallible method of communicating with the entire campus. Brooks emphasizes that texting is merely a newer element among multiple layers of notification established on the FSU campus.

The University of Texas-Austin has already implemented a text alert system, meanwhile, as noted in a Wall Street Journal article examining the growing interest in this form of communication. It describes several companies currently providing such systems:

More traditional systems feature automated callers that can blast a prerecorded message to thousands of people in a matter of seconds. Teleparent Educational Systems LLC charges $3 to $4.50 per student per year for automated phone alert services. School administrators can go online and record their message and send it out right away.

Mobile Campus -- which provides text-message services to more than a dozen customers, including the University of Texas -- offers its services free of charge on the condition that the universities allow the company to send two promotional text messages per day to students who subscribe to their services. E2Campus, another text-messaging company that has more than 30 customers, charges $1 a year per student for universities to use their communications services. Both companies say that they received an overwhelming number of inquiries after the Virginia Tech shootings.

Ejercito even points to ways in that texting and online social networks are being used in tandem. "Look at text message updates for Facebook, where people have signed up to get text messages whenever someone writes on their Facebook wall," he says. "That has acceptance, so I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think that students would want to hear when there's a campus building that's been closed or if a whole area of campus has been shut down."

Assistant Chief Burke emphasizes that texting remains one option among many that they are exploring. "One of the tasks given to this workgroup was that we want them to look at everything out there," he says. "This isn't just about text messaging, but everything that's out there."

Burke explains that their biggest consideration will be determining what will be most likely to receive the attention of students. "That's our biggest target audience," he says. "Getting student recommendations and input on these different technologies is going to be essential." Ejercito is even more emphatic on student involvement. "I think the only way this is going to happen is if the students push this for themselves," he says.

The UW does not have a hard timeline set for implementing new communications approaches, though Burke says the workgroup understands that sooner is better. "We would hope that by the end of May we would have a pretty good idea of a direction we're going in," he says, with the upcoming fall semester as the goal for having a system in place. "It would be our preference to either kick something off during summer orientation, or certainly to have it in place by the beginning of the semester," Burke continues. "We'll keep our fingers crossed."

Ejercito hopes it will include some form of a texting system. "It's very much a no-brainer," he says, "and could be both an effective and cost-effective way of reaching out to students in emergency situations."

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