After Virginia Tech, Alert Systems Proliferate

Schools embrace mass text messaging systems, but many students show indifference. 

A year after a gunman at Virginia Tech killed 32 fellow students and himself, academic officials have scrambled to deploy emergency alert systems featuring consolidated voice, text messaging and e-mail. Anxious administrators fretting over faculty and student safety have spent millions on mass notification alerts.

Now, if only students would use the systems.

"Enrollment [in the program] is a constant problem," said Raju Rishi, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Rave Wireless, which has approximately 50 colleges and universities under contract for the company's emergency alert system. "Not all schools make it mandatory."

A recent Associated Press survey showed that among 500 campuses using Omnilert's popular e2campus system, approximately 40 percent of the students had signed up for the service. Rishi said the industry average is about a 25 percent enrollment rate.

Tragedy, unfortunately, has a way of dramatically increasing the enrollment rate. At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, a new emergency alert system instituted after the shootings drew 20,000 students and faculty, about half the school's population. When an armed person was spotted on the St. John's University campus in New York, the school had about 2,100 enrollments in its alert system. The day after, the number jumped to more than 6,500.

"After Virginia Tech, everyone came out of the woodwork offering text messaging systems," Rishi said. "There were many, many buyers." Rishi said more than 95 percent of college students arrive on campus with a cell phone and "text messaging is the tool by which they organize their lives."

Alerting students is nothing new for colleges and universities, although they have been slow to embrace new technologies. For years, schools' alert systems primarily involved leaving mass voice mails through dormitory PBX systems. The system did students who were out of their rooms little good.

"Students today not only bring their own cell phones, they bring their own e-mail," Rishi said. "They tend to auto-forward their school e-mail to their personal e-mail. They tend not to use the school's Web site, creating a major communications digital divide."

"What they can't do is bring their own portal," he added.

Rave provides schools with a fully redundant infrastructure that includes six data centers, multiple SMS (Short Message Service) aggregators with automated failover capabilities and advanced monitoring systems that verify alert delivery across the major mobile carriers. Rave delivers mobile text alerts to all mobile carriers across the United States.

"The school gets on one of our hosted servers and decides what population of the school it wants to reach," Rishi said, adding that his company can send up to 9,000 text messages per minute. For voice messages, Rave can pump out 8,000 messages per minute. "Text messaging is not for everyone ... like parents," he said.

And, apparently, not for all students, when it comes to emergency alerts.