To raise the alarm, use cellphones?
Colleges weigh text messaging as a tool to warn students of danger, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Blacksburg, Va. — A gunman is potentially loose on campus for at least two hours as police scramble on their CB radios to find him. Yet students, 94 percent of whom carry cellphones, unsuspectingly don their backpacks and go to class.
Could technology – specifically, emergency text messages via cellphones – have saved some of the 33 lives lost last month at Virginia Tech?
That question is burning across college campuses since the shootings, as schools from California to the Carolinas scramble to fine-tune their incident-response systems in part by tapping into the instant-message culture of today's college generation.
But in that quest, experts say, colleges face privacy and liability concerns, as well as the basic question of whether subtle "social alarms" such as texting are really better at warning of a possible emergency than are the cold-war-era siren and the under-the-desk-drill.
"A lot of schools are badly prepared, and they are frantic to figure out a system for emergencies after what happened at Virginia Tech," says Ming Chow, who teaches a class at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., called "Security, Privacy, and Politics in the Computer Age."
A glance across Virginia Tech's verdant campus reveals the obvious: Though students are spread out across the 2,600-acre campus, they are very connected, with their cellphones as constant companions. The ease of communication has led to higher expectations for communication among both students and parents, as evidenced by the 2007 Survey on College Parent Experiences that showed 1 in 3 college parents chats with his or her child once a day or more.
"I think the expectation now is, why didn't you call me?" says Howard Udell, CEO of Saf-T-Net AlertNow, an emergency text-messaging service in Raleigh, N.C. "Schools now ... have to take control of communication."
More cameras, loudspeakers, and sirens
To some extent, it's already happening.
The University of Iowa is accelerating plans to install a campuswide public-address system. The University of Minnesota in Minneapolis already has hundreds of cameras pointed to all corners of campus. Some colleges are incorporating video-scanning software that brings attention to unusual behavior, such as someone falling down. The University of Washington is mulling over whether to install warning sirens across campus.
At Radford University, neighbor of Virginia Tech, officials are going over emergency plans with a "fine-tooth comb," says spokesman Rob Tucker. Radford is now installing sirens and loudspeakers across campus.
But text messaging offers a new approach, and more schools are implementing systems that can send warnings to everyone or to a specific group of people. Penn State in University Park, which fired up its text-message system in the fall, has already used it at least 20 times to announce weather warnings and campus closures.
Virginia Tech began to look at text messaging after an escaped convict shot and killed a police officer and a security guard near campus at the start of the semester. When student Cho Seung-Hui went on his rampage on April 16, the school was still weighing its options. Finding a workable service proved to be a tougher task than originally thought, says Mark Owczarski, director of news and information at Virginia Tech.
Text messaging 'not a magic bullet'
A key problem with many text-messaging services is that they require students to subscribe, which will automatically limit how widely it's used. For that reason, "I'm not sure that text messaging is the magic bullet," says Mr. Owczarski. "But we will have a system in place [at Virginia Tech] very soon, and we will be working aggressively to get people to register."
Texas A&M University in College Station has been inundated with pitches from firms hawking the latest alarm technologies, some offering "magic button" products.
Many university officials are wary. Expectations of instant and individual communication, for one, increase colleges' liability exposure if the technology is not as effective as advertised. And cellular communication falls under privacy laws that may limit how widely it can be used.
Moreover, college officials say, texting could backfire if, say, a perpetrator is tapped into the network or a text-message beep goes out while a student is hiding from a gunman.
"There are a million scenarios out there, and we've got to be smart enough to do a good job of getting information out ... without exacerbating whatever situation is ongoing," says Chris Meyer, environmental health and safety director at Texas A&M. "The idea is fairly simple, but how you implement it can get ... complicated."
But critics say that schools continue to fall short on emergency planning, and that the major reasons are lack of will or competence.
"It's pretty clear to me that the Virginia Tech campus didn't realize what was going on, and that represents an institutional failure on the part of its management for failing to anticipate and drill for this kind of circumstance," says Simson Garfinkel, a fellow at Harvard's Center for Research on Computation and Society in Cambridge, Mass. "It's a failure of leadership, not a failure of technology."
In the end, preparation is as vital as technology, says Mitchell Celaya, assistant chief of campus police at the University of California at Berkeley. To keep students in the loop, UC Berkeley uses everything from sirens and PAs to desktop alarm and blast e-mail systems. The real challenge, he says, is to enlist faculty and staff to impress upon students the need to stay in touch with campus friends during emergencies.
Technology may help students stay out of danger on campus, "but folks have to understand that these things are never going to be totally solvable," says Allen Bova, who oversees risk management at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.