Text message system coming soon

By Mari Mejia

Soon Macalester will join the growing number of schools in the Twin Cities that incorporate text message alert systems into their security policy.The college hopes to have the system up and running some time this week. A contract signed in the summer of 2007 with Omnilert, a company that specializes in alert message listservs for mobile phones, initiated the process of developing a text message alert system at Macalester.

“We’re very close, we had hoped to roll it out last week but we ran into a little glitch,” said Terry Gorman, assistant director of facilities management. He said Macalester ran a login test with a group of 50 students, but five of them had difficulty logging in to access the alert system.

“Although this wasn’t consistent across the group it was 10 percent of the group, so you can imagine what it would be like with 2,500 people,” Gorman said. “We decided to be prudent and wait a few more days.”

The text message alert system will notify students to a variety of announcements ranging from snow and weather alerts to campus security-related emergencies such as bomb threats, shooting incidents and chemical spills.

“[We will use the system] when we need to get important messages across about things that are an imminent threat,” said Jim Hoppe, dean of students.

The text message alert system will also help in making sure that information gets out efficiently to the student population.

“Text messaging is another way we can get information out to people at different places at different times if they’re in class and don’t have access to their email,” Gorman said.

During an emergency, students registered with the system will receive a message from Mac Alert informing them about the situation. Hoppe explained that the messages will be concise and direct because of the space constraints, noting that text messaging typically allows for only 130 characters.

“Most will be pretty to the point and direct you to information,” Hoppe said. “An example is if there were to be a gas leak. A message might say ‘exit the building,’ and then where to go.”

Further information could also then be accessed via the Macalester security website.

“This is just another tool in our bag of tools to get information out to people in addition to email, posters on doors, webpage, voicemail,” Gorman said.

Once the text message alert system goes into effect, a mass email will be sent out to Macalester students explaining the details of the new system and asking them to sign up. The alert system is compatible with various cell phone service providers.

“It is voluntary and even if you don’t have texting you can sign up and receive an email,” Gorman said.

The idea for a text message alert system stems from a tragedy that occurred on another college campus. Thirty-two people were killed on the campus of Virginia Tech in April 2007. Virginia Tech security authorities were widely criticized for not making students aware of the danger fast enough.

“We’ve been talking about it for a while and the situation at Virginia Tech highlighted where we needed to have a system in place to add to our ability to communicate,” Hoppe said.

Hoppe remains optimistic about the student response to the text alert system. “I know from what the company says we should be expecting fifty to sixty percent participation,” he said.