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Study examines campus emergency message systems

Clear policies are needed on how they're used


The University of Alberta, in partnership with the University of New Brunswick and Simon Fraser University, is leading a national research project looking at how and when to best use campus emergency messaging systems.

Many universities were quick to implement such warning systems following the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech and Montreal’s Dawson College. However, universities need to have clear policies in place to ensure they’re used appropriately, says Gordon Gow, a communications professor at U of A and the project’s lead investigator.

“Emergency messaging is as much a planning and policy challenge as it is a technology challenge. Managing and developing effective procedures and guidelines for activating it can be quite complex,” he says. “Pressing the button to activate the system is only the beginning of the process,”

To kick off the three-year project, the study participants organized a conference at U of A in November that brought together university administrators, student representatives, technical experts and government officials from across Canada to discuss the issues around campus emergency messaging. Dr. Gow says two schools of thought emerged from the meeting about how these alerts should be used.

Some think they should be activated only for tests or critical situations like severe weather or a serious incident on campus. Others say emergency messaging should be one component of a broader range of alerts aimed at students, including notifications for registration deadlines and exam schedules.

Dr. Gow thinks the latter would be more effective. If students use the messaging system regularly, he reasons, they will become familiar with it, trust it and find it credible. Students could choose what kinds of alerts they wanted to receive, with the exception of emergency messages, which would be mandatory.

Richard Freeman, vice-president of events for the University of Calgary students’ union, attended the conference and agrees with Dr. Gow. “The disadvantage of the one-off extreme emergency messaging system is that people are not used to the system. They might not understand what it means, or what to do about it.”

U of C has had a mass e-mailing system in place for the past couple of years to alert students to any incident on campus, and last September it implemented an emergency text messaging system. With the latter, an alert is sent to cell phones of students who signed up for the service and the alert is also displayed on television monitors strategically placed throughout campus. Mr. Freeman says these televisions are used daily by students to obtain various types of information, such as the weather and school events.

The research project will also look how people respond to alerts, the legal issues of emergency messaging, and the use of so-called integrated systems. Integrated systems allow one message to be entered and broadcast over several technologies including text messaging, voice messaging, internet and public address systems. These systems are a challenge to build and deploy, but are ideal because they eliminate the chance of sending out different messages to different media, says Dr. Gow. Consistency, he says, is the key to credibility.

Dr. Gow says the project’s research is not exclusive to university scenarios. He hopes the findings will provide guidance to government emergency planners as well. The researchers expect to have preliminary findings in early 2009.

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