Some colleges, such as Montclair State University in New Jersey, require students to purchase specific telecommunication devices such as a cell phone that operates almost like a personal data device. Issuing a specific device to all students makes issuing alerts less complicated, but adds to a student's expense. This is just one example of the inherent trade-offs of any campus alert system.
On the pro side, multi-layered, redundant alert systems blanket the population, meaning the message will almost surely filter through to the entire audience. The alerts are virtually instantaneous once a decision is made to send them, and the network built by these alert systems can be used for other purposes, such as important, but non-emergency communications. Also, electronic communications -- text messages, e-mail, et cetera -- allow for two-way communication, which can help authorities manage a developing situation with more information.
Some potential disadvantages, however, include giving busy students the option to opt-in to the network. This requires them to sign up, which means some won't and they'll be left out of the loop. Also, students often are responsible for providing the current contact information and it's likely many won't get around to updating the system with their new phone numbers or e-mail addresses.
Using the network too often for non-emergency communications may lead students to become irritated with service and either block it or ignore it. Some network alert system companies even advertise they'll provide the alerts for free in exchange for colleges and universities allowing them to send advertisements to students using the same network.
Other non-emergency uses -- campus events, outages, etc. -- also can lead to a blasé attitude; the classic information fatigue syndrome -- by staff and faculty. [source: Word Spy].
Ultimately, the danger lies in students viewing alerts as just one more hassle clogging electronic communications. Conversely, authorities might become overwhelmed by incoming feedback during a crisis, or even taken in by purposefully wrong information.
The Future of Alert Systems
Once reserved largely for weather or civil defense purposes, campus alerts now can be far more specific, timely and efficient. As PDAs become more versatile and wireless networks grow in capacity, one can foresee many improvements in targeting, timeliness and accuracy of campus safety alerts. Such advances could make it possible for the receivers to distinguish easily between truly critical information and non-emergency communications, thereby preserving that convenience without potentially sacrificing the seriousness of an actual event.
For more information about campus alert systems and related topics, check out the links on the next page.