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Community College on Hold with Phone Notification

Sometimes, being ahead of the game can be a drawback. Raritan Valley Community College, in Somerville, NJ, earlier this year created a text message-based emergency notification system for inclement weather notifications, well before the Virginia Tech tragedy. So what's the problem?

Pending legislation inspired by those mass murders may mandate an overhaul of the system for Raritan and other campuses that had a little "too much" foresight.

The Raritan Messaging System
With 6,500 students and 370 full- and part-time faculty, the commuter school had found it challenging to reach all of its students, faculty, and staff about weather cancellations, especially those that occurred during the day rather than overnight. “It was difficult for people to get the word without first traveling to the college,” according to Chuck Chulvick, vice president of learning and technology services for RVCC.

So the community college built an internal system, in a joint project with consultants from SunGard Higher Education. The popular service allows students with cell phones to sign up on the college’s SunGard HE Luminus-based website to receive a simple text message in the event of an emergency. The school pledges not to use the emergency channel for any other purpose, including routine school announcements.

After implementing the system, the college used it for a couple of weather alerts, as well as an emergency incident this spring when an FBI agent was shot during a bank robbery near the school, and the campus was locked down.

In that sense, the messaging system has been a success; about 1,700 students have subscribed.  But pending New Jersey state legislation may mandate a more complex emergency messaging system for all state colleges and universities as early as this fall. In the meantime, creating the notification system has been something of a learning experience for the school about notification systems, including frustrating restrictions on text messaging volumes imposed by cell phone carriers.

In the bank robbery incident, the school used all of its notification channels, including e-mail, postings on the Web portals, and text messaging, to get the word out. The text messaging system worked as planned, and most of the students who had subscribed to receive a text message on the emergency channel did so.

Text Caps
However, to Chulvick’s frustration, various carrier caps on text messaging limited his ability to reach all subscribers. As RVCC had discovered during the process of building the text messaging system, each cell phone service carrier caps the number of messages it will allow a single sender to deliver; for one carrier, that cap was 500 messages. During the bank robbery incident, Chulvick said, “We found that when we used the text messaging channel, indeed, the 501st student subscriber [to that carrier] did not get the message.”

Because the cap limits the number of students per carrier who can expect to receive a text message in the event of an emergency, the school is now working on a capability to send text messages to smaller, more discrete populations. For example, a professor could alert students regarding a class cancellation, or RVCC could send a message to faculty regarding an approaching deadline for entering grades. Eventually, the college would like to implement an automated system for sending individual messages in which its Banner student system could automatically send a text message alert to a wait-listed student, for example, when a seat opens in a course.

The Legislative Conundrum
But there are more challenges ahead for the college and its emergency messaging plans. Depending on the direction the state of New Jersey takes next, RVCC may be required to adopt a completely new text and voice emergency system before the fall semester.

Both state and federal initiatives are moving through the legislative process, laws that would make it mandatory for colleges and universities to have some sort of emergency notification system in place. If that happens, the ever-resilient Chulvick said he plans to interface the existing system with whatever state-mandated alert system New Jersey may end up adopting.

For now, Chulvick said he doesn’t see wasted effort in creating the text-messaging system with SunGard HE, although he said he would have preferred to see the state work with carriers to lift the cell phone volume cap. As it is, he prepares himself to adopt (probably) a state-mandated emergency notification system before the fall semester.

“I think we’ll certainly be able to make use of [what we’ve built.] And hopefully, we’ll never have to make use of the other.”

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