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Risk managers at universities nationwide--prompted by the Virginia Polytechnic and State University massacre--last week began reassessing their schools' crisis management procedures, with an eye on bolstering campus-wide emergency notification systems.
In order to reach the maximum number of people rapidly, utilizing multiple communication systems is key, risk managers note.
"In an open campus environment," curbing threats can pose a real challenge for university administrators, said Rebecca L. Adair, risk manager for Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. "We're so big, we're so diverse, there are so many buildings--how do you get your arms around that?"
Iowa State has approximately 26,000 students and 13,000 faculty and staff.
"One of things we are looking at very closely and committing to doing in the next 60 days is testing all of our communication and emergency notification systems," said Anita C. Ingram, director of risk management and insurance at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
SMU--which has previously conducted so-called "active shooter" exercises with the help of multiple law enforcement agencies--currently has in place the emergency telephone system Alertcast, which allows recorded messages to be transmitted at once to large groups.
In the wake of last week's shootings in Virginia, however, SMU is considering using additional communication modes, including technology that would enable university administration to send news and emergency alerts to students' cell phones.
Colleges such as Pennsylvania State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University have recently embraced text-message-alert technology on their campuses, through the Web-based, mass notification system e2Campus.
Ms. Ingram said that she may also explore the possibility of tapping into the social networking Web site Facebook to disseminate critical information to SMU students.
"I don't think you can rely on one single notification process. You have to come at it from two or three angles," said Iowa State's Ms. Adair. "You can reach a good segment of the population, but there are still people who will be left out of the loop." For example, she said, "not everybody carries a cell phone, and not everybody (checks their messages) all the time."
Wheaton College, in Wheaton Ill.--which has 3,000 students and 800 staff and faculty--in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre is "considering the very expensive step of installing a public address system" across all campus buildings, said Vincent E. Morris, Wheaton's director of risk management. "But for the one time you need it, it seems cheap."
"We live in a reality of limited budgets. One of the biggest challenges that I and my peers have in a situation like (Virginia Tech) is to pay attention to what's happening, but not to let it soak up an inordinate amount of resources," said Mark Briggs, campus risk manager at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"The dorm fires, intoxicated students...it's the issues that are happening every day that we really have to keep our focus on," Mr. Briggs said.