Warning students of campus emergencies via text message is nothing new, but the idea of mass alert systems has now spread nationwide.
The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) service begins this month and will issue national warnings on dangerous weather and other emergencies via text message, USA TODAY reported. Students and campus officials are reminded of alert systems already in place at most schools.
The free system will be launched by the federal government and participating wireless carriers including AT&T, Cellcom, Cricket, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless.
“Wireless carriers representing more than 97% of subscribers voluntarily agreed to develop and offer free, geographically targeted wireless emergency alerts,” says Amy Storey, spokeswoman for CTIA — The Wireless Association.
The brief text alerts, fewer than 90 characters, will issue weather alerts for life-threatening situations such as tornadoes, flash floods or hurricanes, AMBER Alerts for missing children and Presidential Alerts for national emergencies, USA TODAY reported.
Yet, the idea of sending out mass emergency alerts isn’t new.
College campuses across the country use similar systems to warn students of anything that would require them to take immediate action, says Bill Ballard, associate vice president for administrative and facilities services at the University of Vermont.
Ballard says UVM uses the CatAlert system for any number of dangers that students should be informed about — ranging from tornados and fires to active shooters on campus or gas leaks in buildings.
CatAlert sends messages to students, faculty and staff via text message, phone call and email, Ballard says. They implemented the texting option in 2005.
“Texting is the most popular mechanism for students to be alerted,” he says. “They are texting anyway, so it is always the most preferred way.”
Some institutions, like Plattsburgh State University of New York, base campus alert programs on statewide systems already mobilized, which may be something other schools will consider doing with the Wireless Emergency Alerts.
“I don’t know the extent to which [the WEA] system would replace the current one, but it’s something we will take a look at,” Ballard says. “Those types of systems have a lot of value.”
Logan Estes, 20, of St. Michaels College says that although campus alerts have been around for a while, it’s better to have a national warning system arrive late than not at all.
“I think we as a country are usually pretty stuck in our ways and people would not think about implementing a safety alert system,” Estes says.
Catherine Roberts, of the University of Tulsa, says most students at TU get irritated by the campus alert system because the university sends texts to students for every spring thunderstorm warning, which is often two or three times a week in Oklahoma.
“At TU it was especially annoying because no one actually benefits from the text warnings,” Roberts says. “Plus they also emailed everyone whenever they sent a text — it just seemed like a lot of wasted effort.”
In a security situation such as a shooting, Roberts says the texting system would be very helpful and the best way to inform students, but for weather updates, it was simply aggravating.
“It seemed like they were so happy that they could use this system, they didn’t stop to think about whether they should,” she says. “As long as that didn’t happen, I imagine the national system would work well … but given what happened at TU, I consider the chances of those in charge of it becoming overzealous as rather high.”
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