Virginia Tech Shootings Raise Urgency of Emergency Response Measures

While UNC’s housing department has been working on acquiring emergency response technology that could be used to broadcast messages to students campuswide in the event of an emergency, the tragedy at Virginia Tech has vaulted the concept to the forefront of administrative discussions.

“We’ve been piloting this over the past year and housing will be funding the service in the upcoming year,” said Larry Hicks, director of housing and residential services. “In addition, we will be offering on-campus housing residents the opportunity to obtain a cell phone with GPS technology and a phone plan that will be billed by semester, both of which will be less than market price.”

Also, following the Virginia Tech tragedy, the University also posted a question-and-answer document, titled “Safety and Security Questions and Answers,” about public safety at UNC, what policies are in effect on campus and what people should expect in case of an emergency, in addition to other specifics.

This cell phone offering will include the Guardian Program, Hicks said, a new application for mobile phones that uses the Global Positioning System to enable students to alert campus security with their location anytime they are feeling unsafe.

But students who already own text-messaging cell phones can sign up for Rave Wireless – a service whose cost is covered by the University – to receive emergency broadcast messages via text message. Students wishing to use the service can sign up online.

The housing department is in the bid process for cell phone providers, and Hicks said department officials hope to have everything in place by Aug. 1.

“We have to have a protocol in place at the University to carry it out,” Hicks said. “Who does it? Is it housing? The protocol is not difficult to achieve – it’s just how we send out these messages and who we send them out to. The biggest challenge is collecting cell phone numbers for student notification.”

Under the proposed contract, Hicks said the cell phone would cost students about $50, whereas similar GPS-capable phones in retail stores can cost about twice that amount. Housing would bill the service to students as a part of their rent, and it would be an option available only for those living in residence halls.

Timing is another challenge Hicks said must be overcome for the technology to work in an emergency. If someone can send 10 text messages per second on a cell phone, it would take about 30 minutes to send an emergency message to some 30,000 people.

UNC also is considering a siren system to alert people on the campus to check for emergency security messages.

“There is talk of a siren system, but the University doesn’t have it yet,” said Mike McFarland ’82, director of University communications. McFarland said there is a new Internet-based tool known as the Public Information Emergency Response, or PIER. “Chapel Hill is one of several UNC campuses in the early stages of developing that capability.”

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