Va. Tech Officials Unhappy With Emergency Notification Failure

November 16, 2008 10:58 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A false report of gunfire on Thursday triggered Virginia Tech’s emergency alert system, but not everyone got the messages.

Not All Messages Were Delivered

In its first use, one part of Virginia Tech’s emergency notification system failed last week, and officials are not happy, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

On Nov. 13, the university was locked down after gunfire was reported near one of the dormitories. The emergency alert system was also activated: a message was posted on the university’s Web site and online boards, and an e-mail went out to everyone in the university. But the fourth component, which sends text messages, voicemails and e-mails to nonuniversity addresses, didn’t get all the notifications out. Nor did everyone receive two other messages sent later, the newspaper reported.

The “gunfire” turned out to be nail gun cartridges that were activated when someone slammed a garbage lid on them. But the system response left officials displeased. 

“We’re disappointed and frankly not happy, and we expect to get some assurances that this won't happen again,” Larry Hincker, the university’s spokesman, told the Times-Dispatch.

The 30,000 text, voice and e-mail messages are supposed to be delivered by a company called 3n Global, which blamed the problem on an Oracle database. That was not a satisfactory explanation, said Hincker, who added that Virginia Tech chose the company because it was supposed to be “the best” when it came to handling such a large volume of messages.

“If this is the best, then I worry about the other ones. We’re very disappointed,” he told the newspaper.

Virginia Tech and several other universities invested in emergency notifications after a gunman opened fired on Tech's campus in April 2007, killing more than 30 people.

The problems come after a successful test in October. A researcher published a study in September saying the text message alert systems aren’t effective, but for another reason.

Background: Study says text messages are not good enough

Emergency alert systems that make use of text messages are often ineffective at addressing large-scale emergencies, according to a new report by Patrick G. Traynor, an assistant professor in the School of Computer Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Emergency alert systems (EAS) were found lacking in terms of speed and breadth of message delivery due to the limitations of modern cellular networks.

“In particular, because of the architecture of cellular networks, such systems will not be able to deliver a high volume of emergency messages in a short period of time,” says the report.

Current cell phone networks are not only incapable of widely delivering messages quickly, but the study also found that the extra traffic created by the alert systems could potentially disrupt regular voice communications, including to emergency responders or 9-1-1 services.

Reactions: Campuses say text messaging works for them

Campuses across the nation have been rolling out emergency alert systems in response to campus shootings such as the Virginia Tech massacre and the shootings at Northern Illinois University. Many of them incorporate e-mails and calls to cell phones in addition to rapid text messaging.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville recently launched a new service some are calling RazALERT after the school's Razorback mascot. Students are automatically enrolled in the service.

At the University of Georgia in Athens, Steve Harris, the head of the Office of Security and Emergency Preparedness, says that their alert system, which aims at notifying 90 percent of those who opt into the service, has been working well for the most part. "We've seen the SMS (short message service) text messaging goes through very quickly," Harris said, who adds that their system does not rely only on text messaging and cell phones.

University of Texas officials also say that their four-year-old alert system works. "There are 12,000 subscribers and a 97 percent [success rate]," says David Cronk, UT's director of emergency preparedness.

Tony Schmitz, the CEO of Send Word Now, a company that provides on-demand response systems to college campuses, Fortune 500 companies and other sectors, says that their alert systems have not run into the problems highlighted in Traynor's study.

The company sends messages through cell phones, e-mail, pagers, Blackberries, instant message and other services, and constantly tests its systems to make sure that they run efficiently.

"The idea is that you want to get the message through, no matter what," Schmitz said to findingDulcinea. "We personally feel very comfortable that we are able to be very very responsive ... often within short periods of time," he added.

Opinion & Analysis: Do text message alert systems work?

In response to the Chronicle of Higher Education report, reader Terry agrees with Traynor in his criticism of school alert services: “These school alert systems are useless. We had a shooting alert and a few weather alerts like tornado warnings in the city area last year. When the messages came, most of the alerts already expired! They have to come up with a better way; for example, using digital message boards across campus or public computers, including those in the classrooms.”

But text messages can be effective if used as part of a larger strategy, says Chronicle reader Jason. “Our IT department just developed text messaging, computer pop-up and digital signage alert system. The idea behind it is that if we can notify even a small percentage of our relatively small community, we are in a much better position to handle a crisis than if we had nothing. So, is text messaging the silver bullet? No. Can it be used effectively as a part of a larger solution? I believe so.”

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