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Campus safety, crisis communication on agenda last week

On April 16, 2007, in Blacksburg, Va., a Virginia Tech student armed to the teeth went on a campus shooting spree that killed 32 people.

In February of this year, in DeKalb, Ill., a former student at Northern Illinois University unleashed a similar attack, killing five people.

Each incident, after the initial grieving and outrage, raised a question: What is the responsibility of college administrations during a safety crisis to notify students of the danger and the level of the threat?

In Blacksburg, school officials took an enormous amount of heat for failing to put the school on lockdown after the shooter had exited one building and headed for another, leaving a several-minute gap between killings. Critics said the second round of shootings could have been prevented if the campus’ buildings had been sealed, allowing no one to enter or exit.

With that in mind, colleges and universities across the county have begun researching and, in a lot of cases, buying and implementing mass notification systems that warn of some sort of threat that can range from a killer on the loose to a tornado on the way.

And Mississippi’s institutions of higher learning and community colleges are no different. Several of each have already began operations on emergency alert systems that notify students and faculty of an impending safety threat. The modes of communication are many: the systems can send text messages to cell phones, e-mails, voice mails and blast sirens over public address speakers.

“This is one topic we all have in common,” said Jim Borsig, assistant commissioner of governmental relations for the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning.

Borsig was addressing an audience of law enforcement officers and administrators from the state’s college and university and community college campuses.

The group assembled April 30 in Jackson’s Telcom Center to exchange ideas and hear from places that had already started an emergency alert system.

Ole Miss started looking into the idea last fall. The university already had a warning system that sent out notifications to television sets connected to in-house cable. But suddenly there was a need for more means of reaching students and faculty in the event of a tragedy like the ones in Virginia and Illinois.
“There’s a myriad of solutions,” Ole Miss telecommunications director David Drewery, one of the symposium’s panelists, said. “But no one is going to reach absolutely everybody.” University administrators and tech experts did agree on a system that has since been implemented. It sends text messages to students who have signed up to receive emergency notifications, which is the most common and most efficient way to reach as many as possible, Drewery said.

Under the orders of former president Robert Foglesong, who was at the Pentagon on 9/11, Mississippi State University did the same, shopping around for a system that met the requirements Foglesong had laid out. Those were the ability to reach a large number of people quickly in the event of an emergency.

Mike Rackley, MSU’s head of information technology services, said a crisis action team was also formed. And from all that brainstorming came a system that alert an emergency via text message, e-mail and instant computer message.

“We definitely needed multiple modes of communication,” Rackley said. The University of Southern Mississippi has just entered into a contract with a service provider. Jackson State University is in the process of selecting a system, as is Holmes Community College. East Mississippi Community College held its first system test May 2.

Cellular South, which sponsored last week’s symposium, has played a critical role for each institution. As the state’s largest wireless provider, each alert system — specifically the text message systems — had to be compatible with the wireless devices the Ridgeland-based company sold. Otherwise, the notifications would never reach thousands of the intended recipients.

So before university officials signed off on any of the systems, Cellular South partnered with the universities and conducted trial runs of their capabilities.

“Several campuses approached us and said, ‘Help us find the top five systems,’” said Dennis Graham, a data engineer for Cellular South. “There’s more than a top five. It’s more like 35 or 40. There’s no way we could establish a relationship and test all the systems. So we agreed to help universities test systems before implementation.”

That process is one Eric Clark, former Mississippi secretary of state and current executive director of the Mississippi State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, would like to see repeated at every community college and four-year institution in the state.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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