Students received at least one e-mail from the university in the past weeks informing them of changes to USF’s emergency alert system. With luck, many of them also received a text-message from the university yesterday and will receive yet another one tomorrow, with the purpose of testing this new SMS (short messaging service) based system, which allows the Department of Public Safety to send out prompt text-message warnings to students in the event of an emergency.
“We’re looking forward to this,” said Director of Public Safety Dan Lawson of the upcoming changes to the emergency notification process. “It will be the final piece that will give us the most comprehensive system of any university around in notifying the public in the event of an emergency.”
The procedure is simple: as soon a state of emergency has been determined, said ITS project manager Aouie Remigio, Public Safety will send out text messages to all the students whose cell phone numbers are in USF’s Banner database; these messages will be brief, containing only a short warning of the emergency and a link to USF’s emergency web page, which students can go to for more information.
While most USF students have unlimited text messaging plans, others have to pay a small fee for every message, and, Lawson said, might not want to be included in the emergency notification.
“We’ve found that the best way to accomplish this, to reach the most people, is to have an opt-out program,” said Lawson. This means that students whose phone numbers are in the university’s database will be automatically included in the program, but that they can choose to opt out.
Lawson estimated that “probably 80-90 percent of most universities use an opt-in program instead,” a system where people in the community are advised by email that they can sign up for emergency text notification by going to a certain link and registering. “However,” he said, “we found that at best you get maybe 20-30 percent, whereas in an opt-out program you can get much higher percentage numbers.”
There are around 10 or 11 specific emergency situations, Lawson said, that would require the sending of warning text-messages. These include such circumstances as a shooter on campus (in which case the message would tell students the approximate location of the shooter, as well as instruct them to take cover or stay off campus), earthquakes, gas leaks, fires, windstorms, terrorist acts, and explosions.
“We only plan to use this in the event of an emergency, which means hopefully we never have to use it, but we will be testing it two to three times a year, so people should expect to receive a text message from us,” Lawson said.
This new project, a collaboration between Public Safety and ITS, is still underway, and there are a few snags to be worked out and decisions to be made—for example, the service that will provide the texts remains to be chosen.
One concern with this new program, Lawson said, is “traffic congestion. When you put out a mass notification to more than a handful of people, you get into the hundreds or thousands, the information system network can only handle so many at a time.”
Another concern is that people will tend to ignore to the text messages sent by the university. However, “I think they will [read them],” said Remigio.
The testing of this system will shed light on both of these issues. Right now, Remigio said, two possible services are being considered: Jyngle, whose services are free, and Blackboard Connect, which charges for the notifications sent. A test text-message was sent using the Blackboard service on Mar. 31, and a message will be sent using Jyngle on Apr. 2. Along with these messages will come a link to a brief online survey. Hopefully, Lawson said, students will give feedback on when they received the message and whether there was a delay, so as to help the university choose the most effective system.
“We want to find the best system at the least cost,” said Lawson. “Obviously we’d rather choose the free one if it has the same effect, but when we ask people in the survey…we can get an idea of the traffic flow at that time in the system.”
Even with the program’s shortcomings, Remigio said, the emergency SMS system will be a significant improvement on the existent emergency warning procedures. These consist of an outdoor warning siren system, which is a collaborative effort with the city of San Francisco; the “e-mail blast”, which is the sending of a notification email to every Donsmail-user; and a text-message sent to “key players” in the university, such as the president and the Emergency Operations Center, said Lawson.
“I don’t consider the implementation of a text-messaging emergency notification as a standalone service,” said Remigio. “Text-messaging won’t get everyone, but we can cast a wider net with text messaging knowing that it is used in conjunction with the other systems.”