Campuses use technology to alert people to emergencies

McClatchy NewspapersApril 17, 2007 

WASHINGTON—Some universities and cities have set up elaborate voice-mail and e-mail systems to alert people in case of emergencies, such as the massacre at Virginia Tech.

The systems take advantage of the spread of cell phones, handheld digital devices and the Internet to swiftly communicate threats, from tornadoes to armed intruders.

The idea is to avoid the kind of confusion and delay that allowed a disturbed student to roam the Blacksburg, Va., campus for more than two hours Monday, killing 32 people and himself.

Georgetown University in Washington, for example, has multiple ways to warn students, faculty and staff of an emergency on campus.

"We have a series of communication methods, depending on the severity and type of the incident," said Julie Bataille, the school's assistant vice president for communications. "We're prepared to do it quickly to everyone."

Georgetown's preferred method is to e-mail everyone on its Internet system. A similar message would go to faculty and staff by automated voice mail. A recorded message would go up on the university's emergency-information phone line. A fourth outlet would be the campus cable-television channel. Finally, a loud horn could sound, warning everyone to take cover in a building.

The system isn't perfect. It's impossible to guarantee that every student will be reached at any time, day or night.

Georgetown doesn't yet have a way to sent text messages to individual cell phones, but is working to have such a system in place by next fall, Bataille said.

As a consequence of the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the District of Columbia created a emergency notification system called "Alert DC."

At its heart is a voluntary "Text Alert" network, in which any resident, visitor, school, business or other organization may enroll for free. The system provides brief text messages to cell phones, computer e-mail systems, mobile devices such as BlackBerrys and Palm Pilots, pagers and fax machines. Subscribers are charged only the cost of the messages from their service providers, such as Motorola or Nokia.

When a threat arises, the Washington emergency staff is supposed to provide updates, instructions on what to do, whom to contact and other useful information.

Alert DC includes a telephone-messaging system that allows officials to notify residents, all over the city or in a specific area, about a threat. Washington residents are enrolled in the system automatically.

In addition, the city government has installed equipment at six radio stations to broadcast emergency messages in case of severe weather or a terrorist attack.

The federal government is developing a National Alert System that's supposed to warn every citizen of natural or manmade threats. Congress ordered the system in the WARN (for Warning, Alert and Response Network) Act, which President Bush signed late last year.

A group of experts is working out the details of the system, which will include everything from sirens to satellites. The legislation requires that "regardless of where an individual is, or what kind of communications technologies they are using, they will receive a lifesaving alert."

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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