When college after college launched new text message alert systems after the Virginia Tech shooting, most school officials were just planning to use the technology in worst-case scenarios. But while instant notification already proved valuable in bomb scares and other campus emergencies last fall, schools are expanding the use of text alerts to also cover the most mundane events. For instance, in Iowa City, a severe ice storm and rare school closing gave the University of Iowa the chance to test its new system, while the University of Nebraska-Lincoln used text alerts to reroute traffic after a gas leak.
Cellphone texting technology has even shown unique benefits. When Binghamton University's power went out in December, the text alert system allowed the school to reach students when computers and Internet connections were mostly knocked out. But these alerts aren't perfect. Louisiana State University's untested system malfunctioned when officials tried to inform students of a double homicide. Even when the technical kinks are fixed, administrators still face the key question of which situations warrant mass notification. And students haven't rushed to participate, citing costs and laziness. At LSU, only 8,400 of the 35,000 eligible people signed up for the service; at Nebraska, just 6,000 of 16,000.
Critics of the text alert rush worry that the money could be better spent on preventive measures like improved mental health facilities or beefed-up security. As helpful as new tools can be, the hope is that text alerts will never have to be used at all.