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The Flip Side of Emergency Alerting

March 26, 2008

Anyone with a Google Alert for “emergency alerting” (yeah, okay, so I’m the only one), knows that just about every day, a new press release pops into their inbox extolling the foresight and overwhelming concern at some university for the student body with the introduction of some new community alerting system. Following the Virginia Tech incident, it seems that every university is investing tons and tons of money to let their campus know about a potential threat.

Now, I’m all for keeping people in the loop, and think that robust communication systems should exist in all facets of our lives, but wonder how thoroughly these systems have been thought through.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, there was an outcry against the non-use of the “WolfAlert” system in place at North Carolina State University. An article in the local news section of WRAL – Raleigh described the situation:

Two students told police they were near 2110 Avent Ferry Road at about 9 p.m. Monday when a man wearing a mask and armed with a knife robbed them. A graduate student was leaving a building on the Centennial Campus on Tuesday afternoon when two men armed with a handgun demanded his wallet.

Now, I grew up and went to school in a major East Coast city, so a couple of stick-ups is just life, as far as I’m concerned. But down south, in a bucolic setting like NC State, especially after Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, folks can be a bit jittery. According to the article:

“I think an armed robber on campus should merit a text message,” [N.C. State student David] Orr said.

That was the opinion of every student WRAL spoke with Wednesday.

So, now you have calls to start using the system more. And while I have no proof of such a phenomenon, I’ll venture a guess that every university that uses the alert system more is receiving calls to start using it less. This seems to be a concern on the NC State campus:

“We believe that was the right decision,” said David Rainer, N.C. State’s associate vice chancellor for environmental health and safety.Rainer said the university is being very cautious about how it uses the text-alert system.

“One of the things we’re concerned about is over-notification,” he added.

With this in mind, what is a university, or really any alerting agency supposed to do? Well, as we’ve talked about before, technology is not a plan. So many universities jumped at the chance to offer this great new technology to their student bodies without planning how and when it would be used, then educating their students on those plans. So many of these kids went to a “easy sign-up” webpage, entered their cell phone number and that was it. There was no protocol known to the actual users of the system saying that the system wouldn’t be used for just armed robbers. I think that the students are right in that it begs the question — what will the system be used for?

It’s a question that needs to be addressed on more and more campuses — and corporate campuses, government buildings, and even regions around the country.

Photo credit: williamhartz

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 1, 2008 9:56 pm

    This is a typical example of how we rush the technology, but for get the details. I think this technology has a great use in the case of emergencies, but at what point does it cross the line into being annoying.

    Bill Clanton

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