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Mobile Phone Notification Technology Relative to Campus Security & Safety

Author: Whitney Sommers

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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By Whitney Sommers

Originally published in our Jan/Feb 2008 issue.

The basic desire to leverage the technology of the mobile phone for emergency alert systems, in its simplest form seems blatantly obvious, until, upon further exploration, a plethora of complexities arise. After the Virginia Tech shootings there was a flurry of activity surrounding the specification, selection, and deployment of emergency alert systems that tie mobile phones into the mix for campus populations, with strong implications across the media and industry that this technology would have saved lives. Since this was by no means the first time this had been visited over the past few years, one wonders what has been holding up the deployment?

A lack of mobile phone devices among the campus populations is no longer the issue it once was since most students, faculty, and staff arrive with their own devices in tow. However, other barriers have risen to take its place. For instance, can school authorities legally force all campus personnel to opt in by providing the school with their cell phone numbers? Is there a guarantee that the alert system will work equally on all platforms, networks, and devices, an added concern for international students arriving with foreign devices? Is the network carrier liable for undelivered messages if it leads to a disastrous result for the recipient? Will there be enough cell tower capacity to handle a sudden surge in usage during an emergency and if not, who would cover that added cost? And finally – if the campus population’s mobile phones are part of an emergency alert system, can the school continue recently instituted policies that require no cell phones be on during class exams to combat the practice of text messaging as a method by which to cheat?

Due to the Virginia Tech incident, many schools feel obligated to install some type of mobile phone emergency alert system so as to appease the new conventional wisdom, without answering the question, “Will the system be an effective tool in an emergency?” It appears that its effectiveness will depend more on what the emergency is, rather than the type of system used. For example, vendors of these mobile phone alert systems report that many schools have successfully implemented and used mobile phone emergency alerts for impending weather disasters. In these instances, there is a greater lag time between the alert and the impending disaster, i.e., a hurricane warning. Also, there is already a set of instructions in place for contending with these emergencies that can be shared through the alert system.

The school’s liability issues will be covered with a system in place, but will it save lives in the case of a campus shooter? So far, no one has proffered what the message at Virginia Tech would have been, had they had their impending mobile alert system already in place. Since the first shooting was in a dorm, would the school have told everyone they would be safer to leave the dorms and go to class, which we know turned out to be the worst place to be? Is the only completely safe answer is to have all campus personnel leave the campus till the shooter is found, even if it takes months?

There are several vendors who are addressing these issues in one form or another, offering a variety of business models. MessageOne provides a system called AlertFind, in which the school contracts for the estimated amount of voice minutes and text messages and can buy more as needed. It’s hosted on secure and redundant, infrastructures at off-site disaster recovery data centers. Mobile Campus offers ad-supported text service free to both the university and the recipients, with a recent offer to make emergency alerts completely free. MIR3 is a high-end system that offers an on-site or off-site hosted solution. ClearTxt is a text messaging system that is very “school” oriented by including notification of a wide range of school activities.

UIEvolution, a software company that provides a development platform for device and platform-agnostic, mobile applications, suggests that those schools who expect emergency alerts to be few and far between, might want to consider building a feature rich application that is considered “the de facto campus application.” This application would be used for everyday activities and communication, in addition to the occasional emergency. In this way, all campus personnel would already be opted in, the cost appropriated across a wider range of programs, the bandwidth usage would be closer to emergency levels already, and as an added benefit, the database of users could be intricately segmented for non-emergency reasons, providing an opportunity to send a variety of instructions with greater detail.

Whitney Sommers is a freelance writer based in Framingham, MA. She is an expert in technology innovations, particularly in the areas of digital asset management and mobile applications.

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