Campus Safety Alert Systems Vary, Leaving Emergency Gaps

Campus Safety Alert Systems Vary, Leaving Emergency Gaps

Buena Vista University appears to be capable of getting a message out to virtually 100 percent of its students within minutes if an emergency happens on its campus.

But less than half of the students at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University who are signed up to get emergency alerts - and not all are - would immediately receive such an alert via text.

These percentages reflect the inconsistent and patchwork emergency notification systems that U.S. universities and colleges use. In addition, universities vary on how they keep track of who and how many receive these alerts.

That is the case at Iowa's three public universities, an IowaWatch check showed. ISU, the UI and University of Northern Iowa reach students differently, even though the universities report a relatively high rate overall when it comes to sending emergency notifications to students.

The UI, where an alert was sent this past weekend about a downtown Iowa City stabbing, automatically signs up students to any phone number or email that the students give the university as contact information, while ISU automatically signs up its students to get voice and email alerts. ISU students have to select the option of signing up for text alerts, while UI students may opt in or out of any method for receiving notifications.

Records both universities keep show them reaching 94 percent of their students with some kind of emergency notification system eventually.

Since BVU provides uniform laptop computers and tablets to students on a fully wireless campus, getting information out in an emergency is a more seamless process. Tests indicate that, depending on the method of contact, students receive an emergency notification within a range of less than one minute to no more than three minutes, according to university spokesperson Jennifer Felton.

"Information reaches the student body in a number of ways, and because we take the safety of our students very seriously, we test it multiple times a semester," Felton said. "We can deploy crawling messages across computer screens, text messages, segmented emails, home page and interior page messages/updates."

BVU is working on a new method of "reverse call" technology through its phone system. In an emergency, any land line phone on campus could be pressed into service to serve as an intercom to broadcast a message through all phones at BVU.

Fortunately, emergencies are not a common situation for the Storm Lake university, but the alert system was employed recently after a student allegedly set off a homemade explosive device near a residence hall, to let the campus population know that the situation had been dealt with and that there was no ongoing danger. Last year in April, five students were hospitalized after consuming excessive amounts of caffeine in a class experiment. The system may be put into service to pass on weather, police or fire department alerts.

David Visin, associate director of public safety at the UI, said the university's "Hawk Alert" was deployed last weekend in a stabbing case - students responding to the description of a suspect sent out over the alert system helped police to make an arrest.

"As far as effectiveness," Visin said, "this latest case, it really worked out well."

UNI has no automatic sign-up but students may subscribe to receive alerts by cell phone, landline phone, e-mail, text messages or any combination of those methods.

Automatically signing up a student does not guarantee that universities can reach them in an emergency. The UI and ISU use contact information listed on university servers for this, and that information often has the students' parents phone number back home instead of the number used on campus.

Because of this, the UI's information technology department is trying to increase the number of students who receive text alerts. One way it plans to make that happen is by encouraging incoming students during freshman orientation to opt-in for text alerts, Chris Pruess, UI manager of directory and authentication services, said.

Pruess refers to text messaging as "one more touch point" for getting emergency notifications out. "It is one of our evolving spaces," she said. "At some point we'll be able to roll those in automatically as well."

Only 27 percent of the UI's students receiving emergency notices get text alerts, with another 20 percent receiving voice and text alerts, the university's records show. At ISU, 49 percent of the students receiving emergency notices get text alerts, data show.

That is worth noting because experts say text messages are the most effective method to reach college students during an emergency.

"The best way to respond (to an emergency) is to have the most instantaneous message delivery on a college campus, and that by far is text messaging," said Michael Hanley, who has conducted research since 2005 on college students' use of cell phones.

According to Hanley's research, 81 percent of students use text messaging as their primary form of communication, while only 9 percent use email as their main mode of communication.

"Students use e-mail for classwork, not for personal communication," he said.

A review of university procedures at about two-dozen universities by Midwest student reporters, including from IowaWatch, revealed that several universities are like ISU, automatically sending out emergency notifications to school email addresses and allowing students to opt-in for text messages.

Many schools are similar to UNI as well, in that they do not require students to register for and receive text messages.

"I'd rather be informed in that way than be left in the dark," UI sophomore Morgan Bovee said. However, Bovee said things get confusing when text alerts are sent from different sources, and other students at the Iowa campuses complain that follow-up messages are not always sent to note that the threat has passed.

According to a recent study on cell phone and text message use, young adults -- ages 18-24 -- are the most active users of text messages. The study found that 95 percent of this age group own a cell phone and 97 percent of cell owners use text messages.

A national law enforcement official also recommends, like the researcher Hanley, a system that requires opting-out.

"Generally, any system that automatically puts everyone on a campus in a database is better, and then you have to opt-out," said Anne Glavin, the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Although mandatory text alerts are ideal, they may not always work, Glavin cautioned. In some cases, they may be slow and take longer than an email to get to a student.

At Virginia Tech University, where a shooter killed 32 students and injured 17 before shooting himself, officials say they require students to go into the system and opt-in or out before they can register for classes each semester.

* Note:  This story was produced in collaboration with the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium.