Universities consider text-messaging safety alerts
The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, September 16, 2007 9:39AM EDT
VANCOUVER - Canadian university professors will have to accept the beeps of text messaging disrupting their classrooms as campuses across the country begin to use the technology to provide emergency alerts to students, facility and staff.
Last May, Concordia University launched an emergency text system in what is believed to be the first program of its kind at a Canadian university.
Officials at the University of Toronto are hoping to deploy a similar system by the end of this semester, while the University of British Columbia expects to have one running by the end of the year.
The universities of New Brunswick and McGill are also considering the text system as part of a whole package of safety tools for students and staff.
Most of the systems are voluntary and follow a similar format: Campus members would receive a mass message to their cell phones alerting them to an emergency such as a shooting or a fire.
Security measures have been reconsidered at many campuses after shootings at Dawson College in Montreal and Virginia Tech in the United States.
Virginia Tech was criticized that it didn't respond quickly enough to warn students and staff about a shooting in a dormitory last April.
In a two-hour span it took administrators to get out an e-mail warning, the shooter was able to mail a letter off campus and then return, before shooting more people in a barricaded classroom.
Seung-Hui Cho, 23, fatally shot 32 people before committing suicide in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
A year ago at Montreal's Dawson College, a violent rampage by lone gunman Kimveer Gill, 25, took the life of 18-year-old student Anastasia De Sousa.
Twenty people were wounded before Gill was shot by police and later turned his gun on himself on Sept. 13, 2006.
University of Calgary director of campus security Lanny Fritz says the university learned a lot from that Virginia Tech's mistakes.
"We took a lesson from the Virginia Tech tragedy and it seemed obvious to us, and understandable, that communication would be a problem in a chaotic situation like that," he said.
"It seemed evident that much of the communication that was going on was between students who were text messaging each other so we did some looking around to see if there's any to capitalize on that."
The campus has teamed up with Rogers Communications to work on the system, which has been in place since the beginning of September.
So far 2,200 students have voluntarily signed up for it, while a component for staff is expected to be launched in the next few weeks.
Fritz stressed the text system would be used for serious, life-threatening emergencies only but the university was still trying determine what the threshold would be.
The system would cost the school 25 cents per text message, so the university would use the system sparingly.
"We're putting together focus groups for students and staff to try and determined where that level will be," he said.
The University of Toronto's Robert Steiner said along with text messaging system, they're looking at other areas they may alert people such as the Internet social site Facebook.
"The principle of this, in part, is even if you don't get 100 per cent (coverage), if one person in the room gets an alert then he or she will pass it on."
Simon Fraser University in B.C., which hopes to have its own text messaging system in place in the next few months, is also looking at using electronic boards to inform students of emergencies and school closures due to weather conditions.
Don MacLachlan with the university said they too would use the system would with caution.
"We'd use it with discretion," he said. "(We'd use it) for emergencies with a capital 'E,' not for routine announcements. We have other ways of doing those."
"God forbid we would ever have a shooting up here. But we should be prepared."