Many universities have employed text message-based alert systems to warn students of emergencies. Unfortunately, many of these systems have been largely ineffective.
In November, sounds of what was thought to be gunfire were heard near dormitories at Virginia Tech. The university responded by sending out alert text messages, but the contractor’s equipment failed and many students and faculty did not receive them. Fortunately, other alert systems were in place to warn of the possible danger: 200 classroom alert signs, bulk e-mails and a warning on Virginia Tech’s Web site.
Another example of the ineffectiveness of text message systems occurred at the University of Toledo in October, when a text message alert was sent out after a stabbing. Though the system had been in place for over a year, more than 15,000 people were not notified due to a problem integrating data into the computer system.
Another issue with the alert systems is that they often contain inaccurate information. Officials issuing the alerts must carefully balance the idioms “better safe than sorry” and “crying wolf.” If universities consistently send out messages based on false speculations, students may be more inclined to disregard them. Conversely, if an alert is not sent and something tragic occurs, it would be considered an even bigger failure.
USF faced such a dilemma on Nov. 29, wen a student was robbed at gunpoint outside of the Marshall Student Center. USF Spokesman Michael Hoad said the University decided not to send out text messages because there wasn’t an apparent need to mobilize students, as public safety officials thought the assailant traveled off campus after the attack.
If the assailant had ben taken into custody by the police and was no longer at large, no text message would be necessary. However, since officials couldn’t be sure he or she was off-campus, — and that person wouldn’t return later — students should’ve received some sort of warning — an e-mail possibly, for issues that seem less of a threat but that students shold still be aware of.
As USF continues to use its text message alert system, the University should closely monitor incidents involving — and issues using — it at USF and other campuses to troubleshoot issues and better determine when to do so.
The MoBull alert system might have gotten off to a rocky start, but it has been more successful than those at other universities. Alerts sent out regarding two of the past three chemical spills at USF helped with the evacuation of affected buildings. This summer, it was thought that a student had a gun on campus. Despite the fact that it turned out to be a false alarm, the system was effective.
In dealing with the technical issues, USF should not get cocky and use other universities’ alert failures as a learning tool.
It is unclear why other universities’ systems have been ineffective. Obviously, USF was able to successfully send a message to about 45,000 people. What USF needs to do is make sure MoBull contractor has addressed glitches haunting other universities’ systems. This way, USF can successfuly send messages in the future and weigh student safety above all else when deciding to send out alerts, better protecting students.