October 22, 2007
A visitor to the Ball State University campus sometime during the week of Oct. 29 may be puzzled — even startled — if it seems many students on campus suddenly all start reaching for their mobile phones at the same time. Not to worry. That's precisely what designers of the university's new emergency notification system hope will happen.
Delivering alerts to students, faculty and staff via text messages to their mobile phones is a major component of the university's efforts to speed important information to the campus community in the event of a weather-related or other emergency. Faster deployment of warning e-mail and voice mail messages also figures prominently in the multipronged approach to communicating with the campus when time is critical.
"Our philosophy is that no single approach can be relied upon to reach everyone," Kay Bales, vice president for student affairs, told the university's board of trustees when unveiling plans for the new system this past summer. "So, we're utilizing an array of communications channels and messaging technology to get the message out in the case of a campus emergency."
The upcoming trial will test all three facets of the new system. In order to give university personnel charged with managing it as near a "real time" experience as possible, little other information about precisely when the test will occur is being released, said Kevin Kenyon, associate vice president for facilities planning and management and head of the university's crisis management team (CMT) overseeing implementation of the system.
Already in development last spring, improvements to the university's emergency notification system and procedures were accelerated in the wake of April's tragic mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Central to Ball State's new precautions is the opt-in text message procedure through which students, faculty and staff may register to receive important messages directly via their mobile phones. Bales said the text message alerts — activated by the CMT — hold the greatest potential for disseminating word of a crisis situation to the largest number of people in the least amount of time.
Surveys show that more than 95 percent of Ball State students own mobile phones that can receive text messages. So far, however, only about 4,000 people have signed up to get the emergency notifications, reports Kenyon. He urged that everyone teaching, studying, living or working on campus consider enrolling in the new program at www.bsu.edu/emergencyalert.
"It might be helpful if they realized that the effectiveness of this system increases with the number of individuals receiving these messages, who are then able to help communicate that information to others quickly in an emergency," said Kenyon. "It's never too late to register, and I really think it's another way — a very simple but meaningful way — for students and others to demonstrate their awareness of campus safety and preparedness."
To sound additional warnings, the university also has enhanced its e-mail system to more quickly route emergency communications, as well as established a new voicemail protocol able to deliver within minutes priority messages to the more than 1,800 voicemail boxes on campus.
Sample text and e-mail messages — both clearly announcing that they are part of the system check — will be sent during the upcoming test. University Marketing and Communications also will post a sample emergency communications Web page. In the event of an actual crisis situation on campus, students, faculty and staff would be instructed to access the university Web site promptly in order to learn and keep abreast of the latest information.
Newly developed informational postings in the university's many classrooms and buildings will advise the campus community further on steps to take in an emergency.