American Culture

Could more lives have been saved at Virginia Tech?

I’m going to try and do this without looking like a vulture – I hate those who profiteer off the misfortunes of others and don’t want to be guilty of that crime myself – so let me begin with full disclosure. I’m a principal in a mobility consulting firm that offers the kinds of services I’m going to describe below. This makes me an informed observer, but it also makes me someone who might benefit financially from what I’m proposing. Take this for what it’s worth.

First, when things began unfolding in Blacksburg yesterday morning, the university notified its students via e-mail. There are a lot of problems with the response, starting with this: college students don’t use e-mail, at least not any more than they have to. As a recent Chronicle on Higher Education article explained, e-mail is for old people. (And CHE is a source that VT administrators ought to be acquainted with.)

I had to deal with this phenomenon firsthand when I was a university professor a couple years ago, and more and more evidence backs it up – like this Pew Internet and American Life Project report from 2005. So the school’s response utilized a channel that many, if not a majority of students, were unlikely to access. And there was no reason why they wouldn’t know this.

Add to the research a bit of common sense. E-mail is site-restrictive – that is, you’re not going to get an e-mail unless you have your laptop with you and the campus has ubiquitous wi-fi. What Tech needed was the ability to reach every student, regardless of location, instantly. Tragically, this technology exists, it’s simple to deploy and it’s affordable. It could have and should have been in place – and there will be no dodging the issue, because the university was talking about it last year:

Tech looks to tap into text messaging
The university would use cellphone technology to communicate with students.
By Albert Raboteau

BLACKSBURG — When Virginia Tech wanted to alert students to developments in a recent campus manhunt for an accused double murderer it relied on e-mail, the Web and messages sent to dorm phones. One method that was not available: sending text messages to cellphones. That could change.

University officials are considering following the lead of Penn State University and other schools that use text messaging to stay in contact with students for whom even e-mail is becoming passe.

The manhunt in Blacksburg for William Morva, which led to the evacuation of Squires Student Center and the first day of classes being canceled, is an extreme example of the type of situation that Tech officials would like to be able to notify students about on their cellphones.

“We will certainly be investigating other kinds of communications vehicles,” Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said, though he cautioned that a text-messaging system was still a “blue sky idea” that would take investigation to implement.

Hincker said he became interested in such a system after seeing news accounts of the text-messaging program Penn State launched this school year.

About 350,000 people subscribe to Penn State’s e-mail news service, which includes sports items. Working with e2Campus, a division of Leesburg-based Omnilert LLC, Penn State upgraded its system so subscribers can choose to be updated by text message. (Story.)

Of course, if you’ve ever worked in an academic environment, you know that things move at a glacial pace, so I’d be surprised to see a campus like VT get from where they were psychologically when that story was written seven months ago (“blue sky”) to implementation in less than a couple years – and that would be warp speed by university standards.

Had they acted that day, however, the system could have been in place in time for yesterday. When the shooting started, public safety could have accessed the campus red alert system to send a text message to every student with a mobile phone (a number that likely approaches 100% of the population). This would have allowed them to:

  • lock down every building on campus
  • steer students, faculty and staff heading toward campus away
  • provide updated info on the crisis as it became available

The texts would have reached everyone in the campus community no matter where they were at the time, because unlike e-mail, mobile phones are always on them. Effective communication could have directed people away from harm; on the other hand, the shooter could have literally been directly between students and their closest access to their e-mail.

There are a number of firms in the US that could have implemented this service for Virginia Tech. I’m not privy to everybody else’s pricing, but my firm could put it in place for less than $25,000 and it would have been live in one day.

Let me say that again. This “blue sky” idea that Tech officials were cautiously easing up on last September 6 could have been installed for less than $25,000 and could have been live on September 7. (Please forgive me if this sounds like salesmanship – I’m just trying to stress how simple and quick the process really is.)

This leads us to a question so obvious I’m not even going to ask it.

What happened at Virginia Tech was a horrible tragedy, and it’s clear from the early information that university officials are going to get absolutely hammered for their response. I don’t know if any of that criticism is going to make the leap to what a mobile alert system could have accomplished, but I seriously hope that administrators at other schools around the country are paying attention and are doing all they can to prepare their campuses for this sort of crisis.

[Thanks to Shelley Jack for pointing me to the Roanoke News item cited above.]

7 replies »

  1. I appreciate the comments, to many times people wring the hands and do the wailing but do not step up with anything constructive. This is.

  2. I also work in the mobile industry and thought the same thing. I wrote an article on our blog about this same subject, also fearing that it might be thought of as profiteering from a tragedy, but I did it anyway. Heck, if it saves lives, I’ll take the profiteering criticism.

  3. Thanks for getting my back on this one, Bob. I’m going to be making at least one university approach in the coming days, and I’m prepared to tell them fine, forget buying from me, here’s the info on two of my competitors. Please call them.

  4. My university is encouraging studets to sign up for a texting anouncement service, but to my knowledge there is no way to know what sort of events the university will deem an emergency and what is just “news”. The service has been promoted for news/event publicity rather than for emergency awareness, at least until yesterday.