February 27, 2008

Sign-up for text messaging alerts begins Monday

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale soon will have another tool to quickly spread the word if an emergency arises on campus.

A new emergency text messaging system will provide yet another layer of coverage in the University's emergency notification plan. Officials plan to open enrollment for the new system to students, faculty and staff on Monday, March 3. After testing, they hope to bring the system online this spring.

To sign up for the texting service, log on to the SIUC homepage at www.siuc.edu and look for the link to "SIUC Alert — Wireless Emergency Notification System." After following the link, the user will need to provide their SIUC ID, which is the portion of their campus email address preceding the @ sign. The user will then be able to type in up to three text-enabled telephone numbers and one email address where they would like to receive alerts from the system.

Todd D. Sigler, director of public safety at SIUC, said the University has signed a contract with Inspiron Logistics Corp. of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, for it to provide a wireless emergency notification system. During an emergency, public safety personnel can use the system to automatically send text messages to cell phones and email accounts of those who opt into the system, Sigler said.

The contract, which will cost SIUC $12,500 a year, follows careful study of the University's emergency communications systems last year. Although officials constantly review such systems, last year's shootings at Virginia Tech prompted additional scrutiny, Sigler said. The recent shooting spree at Northern Illinois University only reaffirmed the effort.

"The watershed event is Virginia Tech," said Sigler, who mentioned the texting system briefly at a University news conference on Feb. 15 following the NIU shootings. "After Virginia Tech, we sat down and looked at how many populations we could reach with our current methods, we realized there was a gap. Studies suggest most people have cell phones now, especially students. Somewhere above 90 percent of students have them. We thought a text messaging system would certainly enhance our ability to keep the campus notified."

The University already has several methods to notify the campus of an emergency situation. One approach uses a network of emergency radios in dozens of strategic areas around campus while another involves public address systems in several locations. The University also began an emergency email alert program about a year ago. Public safety personnel used that method successfully last month following a small chemical explosion at a campus building and a smaller chemical incident in February. The emails gave an initial alert about the situation, followed by updates on the cleanup and a final message saying the event was resolved.

Sigler said it is critical that the University use a multi-pronged approach to communications in emergency situations.

"You want to have a variety of methods available," he said. "We rely on technology, and technology is not fail-safe. Also, not everyone has access to every method. For instance, you might not be sitting in front of a computer to receive an email, but maybe you do have a cell phone. The populations we are trying to reach are not static. So the more methods we have the more chance that at least one will be effective."

The company will maintain the server that runs the system off campus. But Sigler or other public safety officials can send messages on the system from the on-campus dispatch center or a remote location. The text message has a 160-character limit, so the messages will contain brief descriptions and instructions only. In some instances, the messages will direct recipients to the SIUC Web site for further, more detailed information and instructions.

Officials might activate the system in the event of an ongoing emergency such as a hazardous spill or ongoing criminal activity, or if authorities issue a severe weather warning — not just a watch, Sigler said. Recipients will not receive advertisements or routine announcements via the system.

"We don't want people to become desensitized to these," Sigler said. "These messages will be designed to give quick directive information in the event of an emergency, and only an emergency."

Although they don't yet know how long it will take to send and receive the text message — some of it is a function of how many people subscribe and how many different phone carriers are involved — Sigler expects it to be a rapid event.

After an initial alert, public safety officials will use the system to deliver updates.

Those who sign up can later unsubscribe if they choose.

Sigler is hoping to test system the first week of March to work out any bugs.

As the system develops, public safety might examine creating a system to reach specific geographic groups, which it could utilize if an emergency is isolated to one portion of the campus.