Alert system won’t change

University officials do not plan to change emergency procedures radically in response to last week’s shootings at Virginia Tech, but they said they are constantly looking for new technology and methods to reach students in a crisis.

In the wake of last week’s events, colleges and universities across the country have announced their intentions to revise security procedures to allow for faster communication between the authorities and students in the face of an imminent threat. But University and YPD officials said the shootings will probably not provoke great change in the existing protocol at Yale, since they believe the system in place is already capable of responding to various large-scale emergencies effectively.

Over sixty Elis show their support for the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings in a formation on Old Campus on Friday.
Nick Bayless
Over sixty Elis show their support for the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings in a formation on Old Campus on Friday.

University President Richard Levin said Yale already has rapid e-mail capabilities as well as a sophisticated protocol for mobilizing police officers in a campus-wide emergency. The Yale community is already familiar with the occasional e-mails sent by YPD Chief James Perrotti in response to robberies and crime trends, but YPD Sgt. Steven Woznyk said the department’s capabilities are much more expansive in the case of large-scale crises.

In the week following the massacre at Virginia Tech, Virginia officials have been under fire for not immediately notifying students of the first shooting, which occurred almost three hours before a second shooting left 30 students dead.

Woznyk said that should an emergency ever occur on campus, the University would communicate with students using a combination of campus-wide e-mails, University Web site updates and a system called Reverse 911.

“[The Reverse 911 program] allows the University to put a message out to all the phones in the university system,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to have something like that in place.”

Woznyk said the University implemented Reverse 911 during an overhaul of the campus-wide notification system that was started a few years ago as part of response planning for a pandemic. While the system was created to respond to medical emergencies, he said, it could be used in a variety of emergencies to notify students, staff and faculty of any action they should take.

Though many students said they were happy the University has a notification system in place, some said they still have concerns about whether or not the Reverse 911 system would be effective, since many students rely entirely on mobile phones.

Erin Patterson ’09 said she was unnerved by Virginia Tech’s slow notification, though she said she can understand that the administration may have thought the first shooting was an isolated incident. She said she would expect Yale to send an e-mail more quickly than Virginia Tech administrators did, but that she doubts the Reverse 911 system would reach enough students.

“I don’t know if I think that would be effective.” she said. “[It could] definitely [work] if you’re in a classroom setting, but I don’t even have a room phone, and I don’t know how many people have them these days. I definitely think it would depend on the situation.”

Woznyk said that though the YPD is constantly looking for new technologies, he believes that the current system would be effective. Even if not everyone is reached, enough students would be notified to spread the information through word of mouth, he said. Residential college deans and masters would also be instrumental in spreading the word if they could be reached, he said.

“If it goes out to every [University] phone, it will reach a lot of people and word is going to spread fast,” he said. “We’re satisfied with what we have, [but] we’re not going to be satisfied to the extent we stop looking.”

Though Yale officials said a major change in protocol is not likely, several colleges and universities across the country have reacted to the Virginia Tech shootings by exploring new modes of emergency response and notification.

Rodger Desai, president, CEO and co-founder of Rave Wireless, said his company received calls from approximately 100 schools last week looking for help in updating their communication systems. Rave Wireless provides various mobile phone services to schools, and can enable universities to send text messages to the entire student body to alert students of an emergency, issue instructions and let them know when the danger has passed.

“[Our system] allows you to send rapid text alerts to the entire community,” he said. “There were people hiding [after the shootings at Virginia Tech] until 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon because they didn’t know it was over … and some of them had health problems.”

If schools choose to purchase a package, they can add additional features including panic buttons and GPS tracking, along with more social features, such as posting dining hall menus and homework assignments, Desai said. Students would either upgrade their current devices to accommodate the program, he said, or universities could purchase the special phones themselves and distribute them to students.

Karen Pennington, the vice president for Student Development and Campus Life at Montclair State University, said her school began a pilot text-messaging program three years ago in response to concerns that students without continuous access to their e-mail could not be reached in a time of crisis. The school made the program mandatory for all incoming freshmen this academic year, she said.

She said the administration has successfully used the text-message feature to contact the student body during a major power outage and snow storm.

“It’s the immediate thing; we can send a message within a minute or two,” she said. “[But] I think it’s important to understand that nothing is an absolute, [and] I think campuses should still have a redundancy of communication.”

Desai said the basic package costs approximately $10,000, though additional features would cost more. Pennington said Montclair State charges students a $186 per semester fee for the basic plan and phone.

Though some Yale students said they think mass text messaging would be a more effective way to notify students than the current Reverse 911 system, others said the text message program seemed excessive.

“It depends on how well the system we have now worked … it might not be necessary to call every student because word of mouth will work too,” Jhenette Lauder ’10 said. “I think it’s just a question of not relying on e-mail only. Calling everyone on their cell phone would be a bit too much.”

Woznyk and many students agreed that a variety of modes of notification would be essential in an emergency, though some had different — and decidedly more lighthearted — ideas about the best approach.

“Ring the bells on Harkness,” Sally Tan ’10 said with a slight laugh. “We should have an emergency Harkness bell.”

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