Colleges Getting Proactive on Disaster Communication

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2007-08-22

Colleges Getting Proactive on Disaster Communication


Colleges Getting Proactive on

Disaster Communication">

When any kind of weather system enters the Gulf of Mexico, Casey Paquet and the emergency management team at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., make it their business to watch very closely.

In the event of a hurricane or other emergency, Paquet—Web manager at the 1,800-student, private liberal arts college located on 200 acres of western Florida waterfront—holds a unique power.

With a single text or voice message, he can warn the entire student body, staff and faculty of his institution about impending danger by e-mail, text message or phone message. And he can have the message broadcast within minutes.

Emergency communications has long been a key issue facing college and university leaders. Operating numerous buildings populated by hundreds of faculty, staff and students makes running a college not unlike overseeing a small town.

"Being right in the middle, vertically, of the state of Florida and on the Gulf side, we have to be concerned all the time [about hurricanes]," Paquet told eWEEK. "Even though we havent been hit here in St. Pete since 1921, every year its a little sketchy."

With Hurricane Dean, a rare Category 5 storm (winds of up to 160 mph) and the first big one of the season, currently cutting a wide swath through the southern Gulf region, the situation certainly is as "sketchy" as ever.

In 2004, Eckerd was closed for full evacuation three times due to hurricane activity in the Gulf, Paquet said. It would have been nice, Paquet said, if the college had had the system then that it now uses: MessageOnes AlertFind.

Using the AlertFind service, all it takes is one authorized administrator to make all users or a select group of users immediately aware of public safety warnings, provide up-to-date inclement weather advisories, or disseminate information on issues in foreign countries potentially affecting students or faculty abroad.

Click here to read more about MessageOnes e-mail continuity product.

Depending upon the options the user selects, a text or voice mail message can be broadcast as text, e-mail, or voice mail and delivered in seconds. Options also include all three forms of reception; a stepping-stone option is also available, one that goes from text to e-mail to voice to make sure all the bases are covered.

AlertFind, which currently has more than 1 million users, has kept companies, communities and universities operating and enabled them to ensure the safety of their employees during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the July 2005 bombings of Londons public transit system, the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, and the 2003 Northeast power outage.

The Virginia Tech campus murders on April 16 of 32 students and teachers—which sent the community of 27,000 people into a frenzy—bring up another reason for a campus or large organization to consider the kind of instant communication that a tool like AlertFind affords.

AlertFind users include the American Red Cross, Motorola, Allianz, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Eckerd became a customer in 2006, and Adelphi College and Middlebury College are coming on board this year.

"Hurricanes are the primary focus of our emergency management team," Eckerds Paquet said. "Partially because you can plan for them, even though theyre sort of unpredictable—its not like a chlorine spill, or something like that. When we first started thinking about all this, we focused on collocation—how can we keep running if the college has to close, how can we better notify people [if something happens]."

When Eckerd looked at its communication options a couple of years ago, Paquet said, text messaging was big—but not like it is now.

"Now its crazy. It made a lot of sense for us to go in that direction," Paquet said. "Initially what we had looked for was literally just a text messaging service. We ended up getting MessageOne, and one of the things thats so appealing was that it is so much more robust than that.

"You can do all kinds of voice messaging in and out of the system, people can respond, ... youve got a whole bunch of options. If I have to leave the state, for example, and all Ive got is my cell phone, I can actually call and initiate a message from my phone to everyone on campus, which is fantastic," Paquet said.

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Even though Eckerd has had AlertFind for more than a year, Paquet hasnt been forced to use it yet. The college is billed by the message [the pricing ranges greatly and is customized per client, depending upon the number of users and service options], so Paquet is being very careful. The cost can be as low as $1 per student, per year.

"I safeguard my messages religiously," Paquet said. "Weve been segmenting our lists on campus, so that were down to classes, dorm rooms—things like that so we can really target messages in the event that everybody really is on campus during an emergency. That way we can notify a finite group of people [if the threat doesnt affect the entire campus]."

Maintaining good data is the key to making this system work, Paquet said.

"Somewhere around 75 percent of our students come from out of state, and so a lot of them have cell phones of their own or end up getting one here," he said. "We did a push last semester to get everybodys latest contact info, and—although the students are busy and not quick to respond to an e-mail from mail, necessarily—we ended up getting 1,490 cell phone numbers [out of about 1,800 students], so thats actually pretty good."

Middlebury College, established 150 years ago, is in the process of installing AlertFind now.

Located in Middlebury, Vt., Middlebury also operates the C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools Abroad at 28 sites in 12 countries. With students, faculty and staff in Middlebury and spread around the world, it would be difficult to deliver emergency instructions or account for college community members in the event of a crisis or disaster.

Once the new system is implemented, Middlebury will be able to rapidly and automatically communicate with faculty, staff and students in the event of any crisis or disaster. Administrators will no longer have to distribute critical messages manually through a broadcast e-mail or voice mail.

When an incident occurs, Middlebury crisis managers will be able to quickly and automatically send important notifications to affected community members. As long as the recipient has access to a landline, text messaging device, cell phone or e-mail, he or she can receive an emergency notification anywhere around the world.

The system, which can differentiate between a real person and voice mail, is able to deliver a spoken electronic or recorded message and even ask questions such as, "Are you OK?" in the event of a crisis. These responses will be available to crisis managers in real time.

"We want to be proactive in ensuring the safety of the college community and this system provides one step we can take toward that goal," said Middlebury College Dean of Planning John Emerson, who is a co-chair of the colleges emergency planning steering committee.

"Due to its multiple campuses abroad, Middlebury needed a unique solution for emergency notification," said Bryan Rollins, vice president of product marketing at MessageOne.

"By analyzing the institutions needs, we were able to provide a solution with the flexibility and reliability to make safety and security the schools highest priority."

Unlike free text message systems backed by advertising dollars, AlertFind is a dedicated tool for text and voice-based emergency communication. Since the system is only used in emergencies, AlertFind prevents the "message fatigue" associated with ad-based systems where users may ignore important notifications, assuming they are spam.

MessageOne, based in Austin, Texas, and founded by Michael Dells younger brother, Adam Dell, also provides managed services for e-mail management, archiving and business continuity. For more information, go here.

Check out eWEEK.coms for more on IM and other collaboration technologies.

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