Report Card on Reverse 911: Emergency-Alert System Still Needs Work

By Melissa Thompson

INDIANA – A few months after the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech shootings that killed 32 students and faculty and wounded 25, Indiana University of Pennsylvania bought an emergency-alert service called Reverse 911, provided by a Temecula, Calif.-based subsidiary of EADS North America, a major defense contractor.

“This system will complement our existing emergency and disaster plans,” said IUP president Tony Atwater in a July 11, 2007, news release.

Campus police use Reverse 911 for voice-message alerts, said Bill Montgomery, director of public safety, in an April 10 phone interview. Another private contractor, 2sms.com, , a Schaumburg, Ill.-based business text-messaging service, provides text-message alerts, Montgomery added.

In fall 2007, the system began operating at IUP. It was designed to send voice and text alerts to home and cell phones of people registered to receive the emergency messages.

But the first time IUP triggered the Reverse 911 system, it misfired.

On Jan. 29, 2008, a power outage hit several buildings on the western side of the campus. Minutes of the Feb. 26, 2008, University Senate meeting documented a series of system “glitches” that were revealed by the outage:

“First, the response time was too long,” read the report of the University Development and Finance Committee. “Calls should have been out within minutes and they were not. Second, no IUP desk phones or cellular telephones were called. Third, the text message component was not used because of unresolved cost issue with Verizon. Not all listed numbers were called, and finally, the caller-id number was unrecognizable to most recipients.”

In fall 2008, one year after IUP activated the system, many IUP students and faculty still had not registered for Reverse 911. According to the University Senate’s Oct. 7, 2008, meeting minutes, 15 percent of students and 46 percent of faculty members had not signed up for the system, meaning at least a couple of thousand members of the campus community remained unregistered.

On Jan. 28, one year after the system’s glitches were revealed, University Police attempted to use Reverse 911 to notify the IUP community of class cancellations due to snow and ice. Again, the system failed to perform as expected.

Internet connections off campus prevented some from receiving the message, campus officials said. Most registered users received text messages, but too late for many commuters who already were on the road to campus.

There is no charge for registering to receive Reverse 911 alerts. But wireless carriers’ standard five – to 20-cent text-messaging fees may be applied to messages received through Reverse 911, according to IUP police.

Some IUP students balk at the cost.

“I can’t afford text messages or e-mails sent to my phone,” said Danielle McAndrew, a sophomore social studies education major who commutes from Plum borough, in an interview off-campus on Grant Street. “So I am left in the dark when I am making the 45-minute commute to campus and classes have been cancelled or delayed.”

Barbara L. Miller, 54, a senior nursing major, agreed.

“Little bits of money add up,” Miller said during a March 25 interview in Stapleton Library.

Melissa Thompson, a junior majoring in journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Sharon Hill, Pa.

Christina Winesickle also contributed reporting for this story.

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