One year after Va. Tech

Canadian universities developing ways to alert students in emergencies

A year after the Virginia Tech massacre, Canadian universities are developing text-messaging systems to quickly alert students and staff in the event of a shooting, fire or other emergency.

And some are going beyond a mass, one-size-fits-all alert. They’re developing systems that allow different text messages to be sent to people in different buildings, providing specific advice on how to get to safety.

“We have in excess of 40 per cent of our student body who have signed up,” Tony Mahon, director of campus security at the University of British Columbia, said of the new system that the school has recently been testing. In the event of a crisis, a warning message can be sent instantaneously to the cellphones of thousands of students and staff who have registered their phone numbers.

York University in Toronto is starting to look at a similar system. Some 80 per cent of York students carry cellphones, according to a request for proposals issued last week, and text messaging could allow the school to reach up to 60,000 people within 15 minutes.

For schools across Canada, the potential time saving is huge. During the shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, 2007, it took administrators two hours to get out an e-mail warning. In that time, the shooter was able to mail a letter off campus, return and shoot more people, eventually killing 32 before turning the gun on himself.

At Montreal’s Dawson College on Sept. 13, 2006, a lone gunman killed one person and wounded 20 before he was shot by police and later killed himself.

A few blocks away, Concordia University has developed what might be the most advanced alert system. It keeps track of student class schedules, so if an emergency arises in one building, alerts can be sent to everyone who is believed to be in the building at the time, instructing them on how to get to safety.

Students scheduled to be in other buildings would receive a different message, telling them to avoid the building where the crisis is occurring.

“You want to make sure that you’re sending the right message to the right person or the right group of people at the right time,” said Andrew McAusland, associate vice-president of information technology at Concordia.

“Let’s say there’s a fire somewhere. There’s a group of people you would want to tell ‘Get out of the building now’… but there may be people at the other campus who are booked to have a class downtown. To those people, you would send a (message saying) ‘Class cancelled due to unforeseen reasons, pleases don’t come downtown.’ ”

Concordia officials are also trying to ensure the majority of students are part of the text-messaging system. They use it to communicate everyday information, such as bus schedules and class cancellations, in order to attract more users.

“When you’re 20 years old, you’re never going to die,” said McAusland.

“So if you say ‘Sign up for my emergency messaging system,’ nobody signs up. There has to be a value inherent to it.”

Concordia students receive the service – which costs the university $50,000 – for free.

The text-messaging system is only one part of most schools’ emergency plans. Concordia has plasma screens in public areas that can display urgent messages and is now setting up a wireless public address system that will permit the installation of speakers in more areas of the school.

UBC also employs a variety of strategies.

“(We also use) more traditional methods that we’ve normally used in the past, everything from getting out the bullhorn to contacting all of our faculty and staff directly in the classrooms,” said Mahon.

While text-message warnings are rapid, they are not perfect, experts warn – especially because most providers limit text messages to 20 or 30 words.

“The ideal thing to do is to think of it as a personal alarm bell,” said Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of the book “Cybersociety.”

“You can get a little bit of information, but one of the things people are working on is, how do you best craft a message that has to be very short and very clear.”

Jones also warns of the possibility of false alarms or pranks, if school officials jump too quickly on anonymous calls or messages from students.

Still, he says a text-messaging system is a good tool to quickly reach today’s gadget-equipped undergrads. “I think you can unequivocally say that it’s effective, (but) it should by no means be your only method of getting information out.”

-with a report from CP