E-mail Alerts May Not Be Best Bet in Emergencies Like Va. Tech Shooting

In an emergency, is an e-mail message enough to notify people of what’s happening so they can take shelter, evacuate or take other evasive action?

That’s one of the questions being asked in the wake of Monday’s shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech University, where 32 students and faculty members were killed in two separate shooting incidents more than two hours apart. The gunman apparently killed himself, bringing the death toll to 33.

Although the first shootings occurred just before 7:15 a.m., university officials didn’t send out a campuswide e-mail about the incident to more than 26,000 students and faculty members until about 9:30 a.m., according to reports. In that first incident, two students were killed in a dormitory, but no specific information was included in the e-mail; students were simply told there had been a shooting and urged to be "cautious" and report anything suspicious.

At the time, many students were already on campus or en route and never received word that something was amiss. The school also did not lock down the campus after the first shootings.

Just 15 minutes after that 9:30 a.m. e-mail went out, police received a 911 call reporting additional shootings in an engineering building on the campus. It was there that the majority of deaths occurred. Thirty people were shot and killed before the assailant apparently turned the gun on himself.

While university officials and various law enforcement agencies are still unraveling exactly what happened, the use of the e-mail notification system and the time line related to when messages went out are expected to be part of the probe.

E-mail is not the only option available in such scenarios. Other technologies, such as emergency notification systems that can push out critical informational messages to cell phones, landline phones, e-mail addresses, fax machines and other devices, are being used at other schools and companies across the nation.

Casey Paquet, the Web manager at Eckerd College, a liberal arts school in St. Petersburg, Fla., said Eckerd deployed an emergency notification system from MessageOne a year ago to better protect students in case of hurricanes and other weather emergencies. The AlertFind system allows the school to send custom on-the-fly alerts instantly to its 2,200 students, faculty and staff members during any emergency, Paquet said.

"We’re sitting on 180 acres of waterfront here, which is gorgeous to look at but which puts us in a prone position" in the event of destructive weather, he said. "We’ve been incredibly lucky, but over the last couple of years we’ve gotten a lot more aggressive" in increasing safety for students and faculty.

"One of the primary things was how do we tell people to stay inside [in an emergency]?" Paquet said. The school looked at several emergency notification systems before choosing AlertFind, he said. "E-mail’s just not it [alone]. It’s not going to work. It’s not fast enough" to get the information out quickly when people are not in front of their computers.

The AlertFind system, which has not yet been used on the campus in an emergency, will allow the school to send out alerts via cell phones and, even more importantly, via text messages, which students are very comfortable using, he said. "Sending a text message is essentially an instant way to tell people there’s a problem."

At Virginia Tech, that could have been an important communications option, Paquet said.

A key to using such systems is having current student phone numbers in the system’s database, he said. Students can’t opt out of the emergency system, but they can opt out of receiving non-emergency messages from the school, he said. The school is collecting cell phone numbers of parents to add them to the system so that they can also receive calls and text messages in the event of a campus emergency, he said.

Robert Noyed, director of communications for the Wayzata Public School District in Wayzata, Minn., said his school system has been using the CityWide Alert Notification System from Minneapolis-based Avtex for more than two years. "It’s a fairly efficient system to notify groups of families, a group of parents, about those emergency types of notices where you can get information out fairly quickly," Noyed said.

Typically used for bad weather when schools might close early or if there is a specific problem in a particular school, the system sends messages to multiple phone numbers that parents can put into the database, he said. The installation and use of the system wasn’t tied specifically to any school violence concerns, Noyed said. "It was an opportunity to better connect with our families."

Don Denman, an Avtex spokesman, said the CityWide system has GIS capabilities built in to allow users to send alerts to specific areas or even buildings in an emergency. At least one university that already uses CityWide contacted the company to find out about enhancing its use of the product in light of the Virginia Tech shootings, he said.

Paul Darcy, a vice president of marketing for Austin-based MessageOne, said AlertFind is used in school districts in California to help notify families in the event of earthquakes and other natural disasters, as well as in coastal areas where flooding and severe storms are prevalent. For 40,000 users, a typical deployment costs about $40,000 a year, he said. The system is managed and set up offsite in remote data centers operated by partner companies.

Bob Poe, president of Ormond Beach, Fla.-based Emergency Communications Network, said emergency notification systems that tie into telephone systems are much more effective in letting people know what is happening around them. "The phone is the last alarm that anybody has, whether it’s in their hand or in their pocket," Poe said. "And they answer it."

CodeRed, the emergency notification system sold by his company, also ties instant communications alerts to e-mail, text messaging, fax machines and other devices. "I’m not second-guessing what they did [at Virginia Tech], but there is technology out there to do this, and it’s readily available and it’s effective."

The system allows different alerts to be sent to different groups of people in various locations during an emergency, depending on their proximity to the danger, Poe said. The cost for 40,000 users is $15,000 to $20,000 annually, he said.

A spokesman at Virginia Tech could not be reached today because the campus is shut down for the rest of the week in the wake of the shootings.

-Todd R. Weiss, Computerworld

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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