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21st Century Campus

With a new administration taking over in Washington D.C., educators and technologists alike are redoubling their emphasis on 21st Century Campus. In the world of higher education, this means a renewed commitment to familiarizing students with the hardware, software and services that can prepare them to meet challenges of the new millennium. Most 21st Century Campus initiatives also are designed to help students develop the ability to communicate, collaborate, think critically, utilize media to gather information and incorporate awareness of the world around them.  To prepare for the campus of tomorrow, we all must act today.

Cities, governments, institutions slow to adopt mass notification

It's no secret that the young people of today are obsessed with their cell phones, mobile devices, and text messaging as a primary form of communication.

Step into a secondary school classroom and at least a quarter of teenagers are peering down into their mobile devices. During family dinners, post-pubescent thumbs are flying over tiny keyboards. Even in movie theaters, many youngsters check out to sit in the dark and text their friends.

Most governments and companies have not kept pace with these developments. City, state, and local governments rely primarily on television and radio to communicate emergency information to the public. The same can be said for many colleges and universities, where students must have access to electricity and actively "tune in" to receive alerts.

Mass notification is a better way. Among the many modern tools available for notifying citizens of emergency situations are SMS alerts. This approach, which sends emergency alerts to users via text message or mobile device, operates under the assumption that time is of the essence. Other mass notification strategies include automatic e-mails, digital signage, IP-controlled sirens and more. In an emergency, these strategies notify users of danger quickly so they can respond accordingly.

The downside: Few organizations have adopted this approach, at least according to a recent study from CDW•G (www.cdwg.com).

The study, titled "This is a Test—Updating America's Emergency Alert Infrastructure," was published earlier this year. Across the board, fewer than 5 percent of 1,448 respondents reported that their city, state, or local government, or their school, relays emergency information via text messages and mobile phones.

Some interesting statistics:

  • Sixty-four percent of all respondents said they turn to the television first for gathering information and getting instruction from authorities; 18 percent said they turn to the radio.
  • Only 39 percent of respondents said their school or office is "very strong" or "good" at relaying emergency information.
  • Of parents with children at home, 55 percent said they see room for improvement or can't rate their school/office emergency notification systems.

Why these low marks? For starters, emergency communication systems are not evolving in line with changing American media and information consumption habits. What's more, fewer people were watching the major television network newscasts in 2007than in 2006.

Other factors: Wireless subscribership is at an all-time national high—1billion text messages were sent daily in June 2008—and satellite radio subscriptions are at an all-time high. Heck, according to the CDW•G survey, more than half of Americans aren't even sure if their city has a modern emergency alert notification system in the first place.

Transforming these habits certainly is not out of the question. Approximately three-quarters of all mobile-device-owning Americans have text-messaging capabilities on their devices and a full 60 percent of college-aged survey respondents indicate they rely on text messaging as a regular way to communicate.

Of those who admitted to texting regularly, 27 percent of respondents said they did so to get a message to friends in a noisy environment, 9 percent said they did so to get a message to someone in a business meeting, and 38 percent said they did so to send a quick message not requiring full conversation.

Only 15 percent of respondents said they have used text messaging in the case of an emergency.

Together, all of this means that the time for text-based mass notification is now. To take advantage of this technology, cities, governments, and higher education institutions must:

  • Evaluate existing emergency notification systems to determine if they are reaching citizens with accurate information within an acceptable time.
  • Recognize constituents' changing media consumption habits and examine the relative advantages of new and advanced communication tools.
  • Establish a layered continuity of operation (COOP) communication strategy that includes the means to "push" focused and targeted emergency information to constituents, with or without regard to the user's location.

At the same time, users must know how their communities and education institutions disseminate information in an emergency and sign up for local emergency alerts if they are available. Users must also establish emergency communication plans should an incident arise when they are apart from their families, and communicate their emergency information wants and needs to their local government officials.

As the educational technology world learned during shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, quickly getting the right information to the right people can be critical to the safety of thousands. It's never too late for cities, governments, and higher education institutions to change their ways. The question is: Can you keep up?

Resources for School Security

These resources are designed to provide you with fresh insights into the challenges of planning, developing, and implementing effective safety and security strategies in higher education: the technologies, the issues, and the role of IT in making it all come together effectively.

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