A problem IT can't fix: Getting students, faculty to sign up for campus alerts

Text messages, e-mail, voice mail work, but not everyone signs up, universities say

Although many universities in the US have been installing or updating their emergency notification systems for students, faculty and staff since last April's shootings at Virginia Tech, technology can't fix one problem: not everyone who's eligible for the emergency alerts wants them.

In a random check of five universities in the US, participation rates range from about 31 per cent at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to about 50 per cent at New York University and at the University of Tennessee. Boston College and Florida State University logged in with much higher participation rates -- about 68 per cent and 85 per cent respectively.

After the February 14 shootings at Northern Illinois University left five students dead and 18 others injured, the issue of emergency notification systems is again a focus on university campuses. Officials at the university could not be reached for comment or details about their own on-campus alert systems in the wake of last week's shootings. But university officials elsewhere detailed efforts to get students, faculty and staff members to add their names, mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses to notification systems now in place.

Participation has been something of a challenge, however.

"People know [shootings and other emergencies] happen, but they don't want to dwell on it," said Major Jim Russell, public information officer for the Florida State University (FSU) Police. At FSU, rather than having students and faculty opt-in, the university automatically includes them in the FSU ALERT system, meaning they have to opt-out if they don't want to participate, Russell said. "That makes them stop and think about it."

About 39,420 students, faculty and staff out of some 46,000 who are eligible are included in the FSU system. Emergency notifications are sent out at the university through text messages, e-mail, the university's Web site, an AM radio station and voice-mail. Many of the university's emergency systems were installed in response to a rough hurricane season in 2005, with additional upgrades made after the Virginia Tech attacks.

David Burns, emergency manager at UCLA, said that although his university has been upgrading its emergency notification systems since the Virginia Tech shootings, little can be done about the low 31 per cent participation rate in the BruinAlert system. By signing up for BruinAlert, recipients can get text messages on their mobile phones and other devices such as PDAs in the event of a campus emergency. All students with UCLA e-mail addresses -- the number ranges from 29,000 to 39,000 depending on the time of year -- automatically get e-mails during emergencies.

"There's nothing we can do to force them to join [the text message] system," Burns said. "All we can do is tell them that there's a critical need to be able to get such information. It's a Catch-22. It's a public education problem. It's a problem emergency managers are trying to address nationally."

Part of the problem is apathy, as well as students who say they are too busy with studying and exams to take the time to join, he said. The university "can get the word out fairly quickly" through a combination of text messages, AM radio broadcasts, e-mail and a cable TV system that allows emergency messages to be scrolled on every channel. "[But] the problem is that the majority of people on campus won't get that message."

One new notification option is a software applet being installed on computers, allowing users to get pop-up emergency alerts whenever they are online on the university's network.

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