UM System adopts new emergency notification system

Monday, September 24, 2007 | 9:18 p.m. CDT; updated 9:43 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

COLUMBIA — The four UM System campuses announced a partnership with a California company Monday to implement a more elaborate campus alert system, the same that was recently adopted by Virginia Tech.

The system, called InstaCom Campus Alert, will notify students, faculty and staff by phone, e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, pager, fax and personal digital assistant, depending upon the preference of the user. It will expand on the system of using phone call lists, voice messages and e-mail.

Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed 32 people in less than four hours last April, was criticized after the massacre for having an inadequate communication system. Shootings were reported in a dormitory around 7 a.m., but Virginia Tech authorities did not send an e-mail to students until almost 9:30 a.m. About 20 minutes after the e-mail was sent, the gunman opened fire in another building across campus.

“Obviously the Virginia Tech tragedy brought a sharp focus on quick, reliable ways to get information out accurately,” UM System spokesman Scott Charton said.

The system, created by National Notification Network, or 3n, can be activated within minutes. As soon as an authorized person calls 3n or reaches the company through the Internet, the network begins to process the information and transmit the message.

The company provides an online demo of the system on its Web site, and anyone can participate in the demo. A test of the system Monday morning by a Missourian reporter resulted in a cell phone response in one minute and 33 seconds, and an e-mail alert arrived in 19 minutes.

Installation and testing of the system will begin in October with the hope that the system will be fully operational by the time students leave for Christmas break.

“It’s a tall order because there are a lot of people involved,” Charton said.

There will be more formal notifications of the new system as the semester progresses, Charton said. All students, faculty and staff will have to register their preferred method of contact.

“You might be in class during an emergency, and your cell phone is off but you have your computer,” said Marc Ladin, vice president of global marketing for 3n. “In a crisis situation, you may not be available through one method, but you will be through another.”

Even though the four campuses in the UM System are spread across the state, message delivery will not be delayed because “messages are not delivered geographically,” Ladin said.

Messages transmitted to students, faculty and staff can be custom-recorded by authorized people. This is possible because “research shows that people are more likely to take action when a message comes from a trusted source,” according to the 3n Web site.

The alert system also allows students to register contact information from family and friends. The UM System has decided not to offer that option yet but is still in the process of making final decisions, said Terry Robb of MU’s Division of Information Technology.

The UM System made a request for proposals from mass notification system providers, and 3n made the best proposal, Charton said. Installation of the system will cost roughly $148,000 in the first year of use; if the contract is renewed for a second and third year, the cost will decrease to approximately $135,000. The cost could go even lower if other Missouri universities and colleges sign contracts with 3n.

Charton said that Missouri State University is looking into signing a contract with 3n.

The alert system is not limited to emergency notifications, but the UM System won’t know if the system will be used for non-emergency situations until those situations present themselves, Charton said.

“Our fervent hope is that we never have to employ it for any massive crisis because we don’t want that to happen,” Charton said. “But at the end of the day we want everyone to be safe, secure and in the know.”

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