Colleges begin text alerts

Hundreds of Md. students sign up for cell phone warnings


May 03, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Alerts by text messageoffered at Md. campuses ............ The University of Maryland, College Park and Towson University are launching separate systems this week to quickly alert students of campus emergencies via text message.

Both universities took swift action in the wake of the deadliest shooting rampage in American history at Virginia Tech last month, which raised questions about why students and faculty there went hours without knowledge of a gunman on the campus.

As university enrollments rise and young people increasingly prefer communicating via text messages sent to cell phones rather than by e-mail, schools are incorporating the newer trend into their emergency response plans, security experts say.

"Students say to me that e-mail is for old folks," said Ron Forsythe, vice president of information technology at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, which adopted a mobile communications program called "HawkTalk" in April 2006. "Colleges are now trying to meet students on their turf and play catch up."

Towson's system is scheduled to go online Friday. College Park activated its system Monday at a cost of $65,000. Three other state universities have text-message alert systems: Bowie, Coppin and the University System of Maryland at Shady Grove, a spokesman said.

The Johns Hopkins University and several state schools are considering purchasing the computer software needed to send mass alerts to e-mail accounts and cell phones.

The University of Maryland, Eastern Shore sent a text message to "HawkTalk" subscribers for the first time last fall, alerting 900 of the campus's approximately 4,000 students to a tornado warning. The university also tested the system after the Virginia Tech shootings on April 16.

Forsythe said the Princess Anne campus, in the middle of the "poultry belt," originally acquired the technology to prepare for an avian flu epidemic. But in the 16 days since the Virginia Tech shootings, 610 students and faculty members have signed up to receive its alerts, Forsythe said.

"We only use the broadcast component in a real, serious emergency," he said. "Otherwise, students will become desensitized to the messages, just like they have with e-mail."

The greatest advantage of the system is that text messages can reach students in class, the cafeteria, the gym or their cars. They also can include more detailed messages and instructions than a simple tornado siren, for instance.

Security experts say that sending text message alerts is one of many actions university officials must take during a crisis.

However, text messaging works only when phones are on and working. Additionally, most university programs, such as College Park's, are voluntary, meaning students must sign up to receive the alerts and notify the service, called UM Alert, if they change phones.

Yesterday, Emily Cohen, 21, a College Park junior from New Jersey, signed up for alerts that go to her e-mail account and cell phone, as well as those of her parents.

"I signed up because of the recent Virginia Tech shootings and how the communication wasn't very quick," she said. "I know that I would want to know immediately if something happened on campus, and I also signed my parents up because I would want them to know as well."

Forsythe said it can be difficult to keep phone numbers in the system up-to-date.

He said that he knows of college students who have switched cell phone numbers two or three times, usually to avoid calls from ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends. He also said that before the Virginia Tech shootings, sign-up rates to text message alert systems were low, ranging from 3 percent to 5 percent.

To encourage students to sign up for "HawkTalk" and to make the service easier to manage, the Eastern Shore campus chose Sprint as its preferred provider, Forsythe said.

Sprint offers steep discounts to students who sign up for its cell phone services through the university. The company also installed additional cell sites on campus and upgraded the area's cell tower, Forsythe said.

When a Sprint subscriber who is registered with the university alert system changes phone numbers, the emergency notifications continue without the user's having to take action in maintaining the service, said Forsythe.

College Park's new message system will complement the campus tornado sirens and automatic building lock-down capabilities, said Maj. Cathy Atwell of the university's police department.

Sun reporter Adrienne Morris contributed to this article.

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