MU plans to test new emergency alert system Thursday morning

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 | 8:04 p.m. CDT; updated 10:49 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 25, 2013

COLUMBIA — MU has scheduled to test a new system with text messages and social media alerts through Blackboard Connect at 8:50 a.m. Thursday. The system would be used to alert the campus community to emergencies.

Although the vendor is new, the program is "actually the same as the old one," said Terry Robb, a Division of Information Technology spokesman at MU.

He said there have been problems in the past with messages not being delivered because sometimes when cellphone companies received thousands of messages at the same time they would treat them as spam and not send them through.

But he said the new vendor has had a good relationship with cellphone companies.

"We’re hoping we will see some improvement with the delivery of text messages because I think they use slightly different technology," Robb said. "The new vendor uses a method that we hope will allow the cellphone companies to send the messages through and not treat them as spam."

People who receive the texts will no longer be asked to reply to alert test messages like they have in the past. Robb said a report feature on the program allows MU to see who receives the message and when they receive it. The old program had this, too, but people were still asked to reply to the message.

He said he didn't know exactly how long the old program took to send out all the messages, but "anecdotally it took some of them a lot longer than we would expect."

MU had to put out a new request for vendor  for a competitive bid for the system because the old system's contract was about to expire. Because it is a public institution, MU can't just choose a provider, Campus Facilities communications manager Karlan Seville said.  

The new program is run through the same company as Blackboard, which has provided online technology for MU courses for several years.

Seville said Blackboard is a good match for the campus because its technology has worked well in classrooms.

MU spokesman Christian Basi said the alert system won't be used "unless we feel there's a significant event to notify campus community."

An example from the recent past is when the university canceled classes and closed the campus in February because of winter storms.

Only university students, faculty and staff who have signed up for the alert system will receive the messages. Basi said MU is constantly encouraging people to sign up for the program.

Robb said currently across the four University of Missouri campuses about 63,000 people are signed up for the alerts, and of those, 14,741 have opted for the text messages. When the fall 2013 semester starts, 90,000 to 100,000 people will be signed up for the alerts and about 23,000 for text messages, he said. 

Basi said MU realizes the program has limitations, but it is just another tool for helping the university communicate with the campus community in an emergency.

The program can send messages in multiple formats including email, telephone calls, pages, SMS messages, RSS feeds, and Twitter and Facebook messages. Robb said the program sends all the alert types at once. 

He said MU will see soon if the alerts come faster than the old program. Although speed is one concern, accuracy is also a focus, he said.

"We want to get a point where we have enough people so the message gets out, and by word of mouth, the message continues," he said.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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