Mass notification. Virginia Tech has spurred a flurry of interest in mass notification systems that would help institutions get out the word about an imminent threat. Most attention has been paid specifically to short message service (SMS) text messaging capabilities via cell phones because of the ubiquity of those devices. "[T]here's one statistic that says 90 percent of all college students now have cell phones," says Pascale.
Interestingly enough, some campuses already had SMS text messaging capability, but students hadn't opted in because they didn't feel the need or because they were unaware that the program existed.
But that was before Virginia Tech. Now, campuses are adapting fast to the vor-acious demand from students and parents for text messaging services.
Drexel University has expanded its mobile communications system to include SMS text messaging and is now doing a "big push" to let students know it's available, says Gollotti.
Drexel and Drakontas are also working on two-way text messaging between their dispatch command center and students. This would allow a student caught in a dangerous situation to text message campus security without a sound. "In light of the Virginia Tech incident, we believe that two-way text messaging could provide vital information related to student safety during a crisis," says Gollotti.
Many other campuses are looking at outside solutions.
Services such as e2Campus and Connect-ED provide a Web-based, fully hosted system that allows students, faculty, and staff to provide multiple points of contacts using in either voice or text massage form. The system uses landlines, cellular phones, e-mail, PDAs, RSS, or TTY/TTD.
These vendors maintain the contact information in their database and use multiple servers across the nation to push out the information to ensure that a designated administrator can send thousands of messages and have them received in minutes regardless of whether certain servers are down in the area. (See sidebar, page 56, for the six characteristics of a highly effective mass notification system.)
In situations such as Virginia Tech where the assailant is in a certain place, these systems can also send targeted messages to individuals in a particular location to warn of danger.
Other solutions include public alert systems that use sirens or recorded voice messages to alert the campus community. At the University of Iowa, sirens were installed to warn students of tornadoes.
Some colleges face additional communication challenges, but technology is helping there as well. For example, Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., is the preeminent college for deaf and hearing-impaired students in the nation. The university needed alternatives to the traditional voice messages and audible alerts.
Gallaudet uses text messaging services, e-mails, and regular Web updates. But it has also purchased 30 rolling electronic signs that will be placed strategically throughout the campus to warn students of emergencies.
Tragedies such as Virginia Tech elicit increased public attention to campus safety and security, but it's important to step back and make sure that any policy and procedural changes are well-thought-out.
For example, because Cho chained the doors to Norris Hall shut, Gollotti now expects campuses to look into and develop policies and procedures regarding alternative points of entry to buildings in case major access points are denied. That's not a bad idea, according to Gollotti, but it's also important to look more holistically. Security changes should not only be made piecemeal in reaction to each new event.
And for all the talk of what campuses can do to provide for the safety and security of their students in emergencies, it's important for students to realize that staying safe is mostly in their own hands.
Murders on campus are rare, averaging 16 per year, according to the Department of Education. Students are much more likely to die from alcohol-related injuries than at the hands of a fellow student.
Matt Harwood is a staff editor at Security Management.