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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Emergency response systems depend on text notifications

Published: April 5, 2012
Section: Front Page, News

Brandeis has instituted a system of emergency text messaging designed to send students “pre-defined messages to match the situation,” according to John Turner, director of networks and systems at LTS. After the initial message, he explained the system allows staff members “to send follow-up messages with more details.”

Turner also stated how the system was designed to allow Campus Police to act quickly in an emergency, and to communicate quickly with the community.

Despite the system’s inherent reliance on users being tuned-in to technology, it has already gained a significant foothold in the Brandeis community. Ed Callahan, director of Public Safety, said the recent test on Wednesday resulted in 2,230 text messages being sent out—an incredibly large number when compared to more traditional methods of communication, such as e-mail or phone calls.

According to Callahan, the university sent out 2,946 messages to desk phones on campus, as well as 8,413 calls to off-campus phones and 3,621 e-mails to off-campus addresses. He further explained that “off-campus” meant addresses that community members register with the university, and could include parents, spouses, relatives, etc. These numbers represent communication with all members of the Brandeis community, not just students and faculty.

Universities have been moved to rework their emergency response systems after recent campus shootings. On Monday at Oikos University in Oakland, Calif., a shooting left seven people dead and three wounded. The shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and 2011 devastated the Virginia Tech community. The 2011 shooting left a police officer and the shooter dead, while the 2007 attack left 32 students dead and 25 wounded.

The Virginia Tech 2007 shooting “hit close to home” and showed that “no one is insulated on a college campus,” Mark Collins, senior vice president for administration said.

Collins also told The Hoot that the events on Sept. 11 were “probably when things started changing,” and that the events had “raised the bar on crisis communication.”

The 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech revealed how communication could be extremely inefficient and potentially life threatening. Once the shootings started, it took Virginia Tech staff more than two hours to inform students about the shooter’s location. This time gap was enough for the shooter to leave the site of the initial shootings, return to his dorm room, change clothes, delete his e-mails, and then mail NBC news a package that included video recordings of himself. He then entered a separate hall from the previous shootings and began murdering other Virginia Tech community members.

Turner explained how Brandeis staff have not forgotten the lesson.

“The tragedy at Virginia Tech sparked a renewed sense of urgency across the entire academic community to ensure we could communicate effectively during an emergency,” Turner said.
Concerns have been raised that the system of text messaging may be insufficient to alert community members to a dangerous situation if one were to arise. While there are areas on campus that don’t have cell reception, such as the science quad, some dormitories and basement floors, text messaging is not the only way Brandeis staff have to communicate with other community members in an emergency.

The university has a total of seven modes of communication in place for a crisis, Turner said. In addition to text messaging, these methods include “e-mail messages, reverse 911 calls to registered cell phones, emergency sirens, the campus phone PA system, banners on our website (SAGE) and plasma displays around campus.”

In addition to these modes of communication, Callahan said that there are other networks of support and information available to Brandeis staff including the Waltham Police, as well as both state and federal networks.

Collins agreed with Callahan. “Everything possible [to prepare for an emergency] has been done at this point.” He also cautioned, “We have further planning to do” and said creating and preparing new emergency responses and communication modalities, as well as updating current ones, is an ongoing process, due to the ever-changing nature of emergency situations.