Text message alert system saves lives at universities

By Gus Bode

As school shootings increase, more universities are looking to increase the effectiveness of emergency notification systems, including the one at SIUC.

Russ Thomas, a SIUC police officer, said the Virginia Tech students benefitted from emergency text alerts during the Dec. 8 shooting, when the gunman, Ross Truett Ashley, shot campus police officer Deriek Crouse during a routine traffic stop. Thomas said social networking sites contributed to the system’s effectiveness, and this form of communication may be in SIUC’s future.

“We have Facebook and Twitter accounts … where in an emergency situation we can post something,” Thomas said.


In the Dec. 8 shooting, VT students received texts stating gun shots had been reported in the school’s Cassell Coliseum parking lot. The university’s Twitter account posted the same information, informing students to stay inside, behind locked doors, while while the emergency personnel responded.

Thomas said he believes the system kept VT students safe. While he said there is no set plan for an improved system at SIUC, the police department is looking into new developments.

SIUC’s wireless emergency notification system has been in place since 2008. Subscribers receive text messages to alert them of emergency situations that could put them in danger on campus. Weather warnings of flash floods, severe thunderstorms, winter storms and tornadoes are also sent through text alerts.

“The problem with the text system is we’re limited to 160 characters, so we could be better,” he said.

Thomas said the WENS system has more than 10,000 subscribers, but he said if more people subscribed, they would be able to easily notify the campus community of an incident to ensure safety in emergency situations.

He said there has been a need for emergency notification systems since 9/11.

Theresa Bates, an undecided freshman from Charleston, said she has been subscribed to the alert system since her freshman orientation. She said she thinks the system is a good investment of time for emergency situations.


“A text can’t hurt,” she said.

According to the system’s website, it is subject to failure because of emergencies or disasters.

Thomas said the text system has proved to be successful during storms, though, because the system is still functional if the power goes out.

He noted the May 8, 2009, storm, which caused significant damage to the Carbondale community. He said the text system was beneficial because it got information out in a timely manner. There was backup power for the cell phone towers, but the only problem was if people were unable to charge their phones, Thomas said.

Seyoum Tsige, a graduate student from Ethiopia studying accountancy, said he subscribed to the text alerts after the 2009 storm. He said he is glad the system is in place because if a life-threatening situation were to occur, he would be more prepared.

“I don’t worry about it too much, but you can’t say it will never happen,” he said. “And if it does happen, if you get the text right away, you can make a decision to get away from the danger rather than getting yourself hurt.”

Text messages are sent monthly to test the alert system and verify subscriptions.

Keshia Steward, a sophomore from Chicago studying pre-pharmacy, said she used to receive messages, but eventually unsubscribed. She said she got annoyed by all the messages about thunderstorms, when she could just check the television for the same message.

In more dangerous situations, such as shootings and intruders, Steward said she is not sure if it will be effective.

“It might help, but I’m not sure if too many people are aware of the system,” she said. “With something like that, it should be broadcast over TV or Facebook so more people are aware.”

Jessica Guerrero, a junior from Chicago studying plant biology, said she feels safe on campus.

“It’s not really a hostile environment,” she said. “With the rise in attention paid to violence in the media, you do wonder about it, though. You wonder if an intruder could just walk in.”

Guerrero said she didn’t know about the text alert system, and that in the case of a shooting, she doubts enough people would get the message.

“It would work better on social media like Facebook and Twitter,” she said. “People check those more online and get notifications straight to their phones.”