Emergency text alert system inconsistent across college campuses

Danielle Sheppard

Ruobing Ma, a senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

By Amy Harwath/CU-CitizenAccess.org -- If an emergency happens on its campus, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville gets the message out to 100 percent of its students via text message.

But only about half of the students at  Iowa State University‚Äč would receive an emergency alert via text.

And less than one-third of students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign would receive an emergency notification via text message.

These percentages of students who receive emergency notifications via text message reflect the inconsistent and patchwork emergency notification systems that U.S. universities and colleges use. In addition, universities vary on how they keep track of who and how many receive these alerts.

Experts say that text messages are the most effective method to reach college students during an emergency.

“The best way to respond [to an emergency] is to have the most instantaneous message delivery on a college campus, and that by far is text messaging,” said Michael Hanley, an associate professor and the director of Ball State University’s Institute for Mobile Media Research. He has conducted research since 2005 on college students’ use of cell phones.

According to Hanley’s research, 81 percent of students use text messaging as their primary form of communication, while only 9 percent use email as their main mode of communication.

But a review of university procedures at about two-dozen universities by Midwest student reporters revealed that universities automatically send out emergency notifications to school email addresses, but often allow students to opt-in for text messages. In fact, many schools do not require students to register for and receive text messages.

According to a Pew Research Center study on cell phone and text message use, young adults – ages 18-24 – are the most active users of text messages. The study found that 95 percent of this age group own a cell phone and 97 percent of cell owners use text messages.

Like many campuses, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign uses an opt-in system in which students must voluntarily sign up to receive text message notifications of emergencies. Those emergencies could range from a bad weather warning to a shooter in a university building.

A national law enforcement official also recommends -- like the researcher Hanley -- a system that requires opting-out.

“Generally, any system that automatically puts everyone on a campus in a database is better, and then you have to opt-out,” said Anne Glavin, the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. Glavin also is chief of police at California State University at Northridge.

At Virginia Tech, where a shooter killed 32 students and injured 17 before shooting himself, officials say they require students to go into the system and opt-in or out before they can register for classes each semester.

Like Virginia Tech, students at the University of Florida “are automatically enrolled in the system using their cellular telephone number provided during the ISIS course registration process,” according to the university’s alert website.  However, students still have the option to opt-out of text message alerts.

Although mandatory text alerts are ideal, they may not always work, Glavin cautioned. In some cases, they may be slow and take longer than an email to get to a student.

But the problem with the opt-in system, Hanley of Ball State added, is that the universities send alerts through formal channels of communication, rather than informal channels such as text messages, which are more likely to reach students.

“Students use e-mail for classwork, not for personal communication,” he said.

Additional reporting by Sarah Hadley of the University of Iowa and Rory Linnane of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Wisconsin. This project was produced in collaboration with the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium. Funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation supports the consortium and its projects.