Campus Safety

Emergency Notification: Penn State Stays on Message

With 80,000 students and 24 campuses across a state that's intimately familiar with inclement weather, Pennsylvania State University clearly needs a reliable--and redundant--system of emergency notification.

A year ago, the university added text messaging alerts via cell phone to its system, which already included an overlapping set of outlets including the Penn State Live news site, e-mail, public broadcasting, and an extensive and popular subscription-based weekly newswire service tied into Penn State Live. "We never rely on just text messaging to get information out in an emergency," according to Annemarie Mountz, assistant director of public information.

Some 18,000 subscribers have signed up for the text messaging service, from Omnilert's e2Campus service, which can send a text message of up to 125 characters to subscriber cell phones. Subscribers, which include students, faculty, staff, and even a local reporter, can indicate their home campus and whether they want to receive emergency notifications by e-mail, text message, or both.

According to Mountz, "Students have told us that they want to be informed." Beginning this fall, staying informed became that much easier--all students were invited to join the e2Campus notification system when they logged onto PSU's e-Lion site and supplied emergency notification data as part of the registration process. That information was then be used to initiate a subscription to text messaging.

One important criterion for Penn State in selecting the messaging system: no advertisements. Mountz said sending ads to students who signed up for a notification system, as some systems do, would violate university policy and might dilute attention paid to any true emergency messages. The system is used only for designated emergencies: The university sent just one text message a month in June and July, and two in May. "We are very careful about the alerts we send," Mountz said. "We don't send one unless there's something important to tell."

Alerts tend to be weather-related--a suspected tornado in the Pittsburg area in May or extremely high winds that knocked over utility poles on campus, again in May, along with winter class cancellations owing to snow.

When the university selected the system last year, it also liked the fact that the system is housed off campus by e2Campus. "If we have an emergency that shuts down our Internet," Mountz said, "we can [initiate] a text message through a smart phone."

That's because e2Campus isn't directly linked into any IT system infrastructure, so it can still be used if Penn State's computer systems are down or if power is out. It could also be used as a failover communication system in a pinch, using handheld devices such as Trios, Blackberries, or smart phones.

Also important to Penn State: the system's ability to target messages to specific groups. Since the likelihood of a state-wide emergency in which a message would be sent to every subscriber is slim, it's important that e2Campus easily let subscribers choose groups to belong to, generally their home campuses; messages can be targeted to specific groups.

Pricing was also highly competitive, Mountz said. While she couldn't divulge what Penn State is paying for its system, and a variety of pricing structures are available from the company, e2Campus said pricing is generally about a dollar per user per year, varying based on school size and number of subscribers.

Mountz uses a Web interface to manage the text messaging system, called PSUTXT. She worked with each campus to designate at least two people per campus who are empowered to send emergency text messages via the e2Campus system; it's generally the top communication person along with the chancellor. "The guideline I gave them," Mountz said, "is this: Who's in the room when there's an emergency? And who would be responsible for getting information out to the public?"

Finally, she advised, text messaging is just a piece of the emergency notification system puzzle. "It's not the be all and end all of communication tools," Mountz said. "Just as you shouldn't rely [exclusively] on any other tool, it should be integrated in your communication plan."

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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