UB Institutes Text Messaging for Emergency Notifications

Members of campus community urged to report suspicious individuals, situations

By John DellaContrada

Release Date: September 1, 2007 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In the wake of the shootings last spring at Virginia Tech, the University at Buffalo, like other colleges and universities across the country, has spent the summer reviewing and refining campus safety plans.

With the opening of the fall semester this week, the university has supplemented its crisis communication vehicles with a new text-messaging service designed to disseminate critical information in a timely manner to members of the university community.

The university also is actively encouraging faculty, staff and students to identify potentially dangerous situations and individuals. It has developed and is distributing widely on campus a comprehensive list of the resources available for consultation and referral when concerns arise about students, faculty, or staff who may pose a threat to themselves or others.

"While campus safety has always been a matter of highest priority for UB, recent national events like last spring's tragedy at Virginia Tech University have given our UB community -- and our fellow universities and colleges across the country -- a heightened appreciation of the need for campus preparedness and effective communication in the event of emergency situations," UB President John B. Simpson said in a communication to members of the campus community.

Simpson noted that each member of the community contributes to the safety of UB's campuses. "Remaining acutely aware of our surroundings, and helping to communicate any potentially concerning behavior or activity, are critical elements to ensuring the safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff," he added. "By helping others get the help they need, we are better able to foster a safe, supportive, and responsive campus environment for the benefit of our entire university community."


Through a contract with RAVE Wireless, UB faculty, staff and students --any university community member with a UBIT email address -- can sign up to receive text messages from UB regarding emergency notifications and campus alerts, such as campus closings.

Part of the mUB -- mobile computing -- initiative, the system will send a text alert to users' mobile communication devices, along with an email to their chosen email address, says James H. Reger, emergency planning manager for Environmental Health and Safety Services. Those who do not have a cell phone can receive alerts via email. There is no registration or subscription fee associated with the service, although users may incur a "per text message" cost as determined by their individual cell phone plan. Some prepay or minutes cell phone plans may not work with the system. Also, some "smartphone" plans may not allow users to register. These issues currently are under review.

Joseph T. Raab, assistant vice president for university facilities, notes that the text-messaging service supplements other methods of emergency notification that already are in place at UB, including announcements via university-wide email, broadcasts on WBFO-FM 88.7 and other local radio and television stations, postings on the university's homepage and on the MyUB portal, and recorded messages on 645-NEWS, the university's telephone information line.

"Emergency notifications are made in a variety of ways, and we think that it is most effective to provide multiple methods and modes of communication," Raab says.

SUNY agrees. Reger points out that the SUNY Chancellor's Task Force on Critical Incident Management has recommended that institutions use three methods of communication during a campus emergency: active broadcast (horn, siren and public-address systems), passive broadcast (closed-circuit television, email and Web sites) and individual notification (cell phone, instant messaging and text messaging).

UB fares well in addressing the SUNY task force's recommendations, Reger says. Implementation of the RAVE Wireless service meets individual notification needs, he says, while the campus media and other organizations on campus meet the passive broadcast directive. As for the active broadcast directive, there are several buildings on campus with active PA systems or fire alarms that allow for both warning alerts and verbal instructions, he says, adding that several other public address methods also are being considered.

Reger admits that communicating with those on campus can be "extremely challenging," given the mobile culture in which we live. "Different venders, various plans and equipment models all create a challenge to mass communications," he says. UB formed an Emergency Communications Committee last fall to address these communication challenges and improve the "interoperability between emergency responders; the notification of more than 45,000 students, faculty, staff and visitors; and communication with surrounding communities," he says.

Raab says the Virginia Tech shootings have prompted colleges and universities nationwide to review and revaluate their emergency planning. "Many universities, including UB, are like small cities and subject to the same kinds of emergency events," he said. "Prior to the Virginia Tech tragedy, we considered the possibility of having an active shooter on campus and developed contingencies. However, seeing this actual event happen reinforced the need to continuously revisit our planning and ensure that we are taking all the reasonable steps to protect and warn our community."

He says the university has revised its emergency plan to be more in line with the National Incident Management System, a federally mandated system for managing emergency incidents that "will allow UB to easily incorporate other emergency-response agencies into campus responses."

"Some of the 'lessons learned' from the Virginia Tech incident are still being discovered," Raab says. "However, like many events, the shootings underscored the importance of the ability to quickly communicate to the community in an emergency situation. We are in the process of conducting an extensive review of our communication systems and technology."

"As we have developed our planning for emergencies, we have attempted to implement a systematic approach that is as flexible as possible," Raab says. "It's our goal to have an organizational response that is ready for whatever surprises and disasters lie ahead. Hopefully, they will be few and far between, but we will continue to make the campus ready."


In his communication to members of the UB community, Simpson referred recipients to a newly compiled comprehensive list of resources available for consultation and referral when concerns arise about students, faculty or staff who may pose a threat to themselves or others. The list can be accessed at http://www.ub-judiciary.buffalo.edu/announcements.

"A common refrain after Virginia Tech was that people didn't know who to call," says Dennis R. Black, UB vice president for student affairs and a member of an informal group of administrators from across the university who developed the list.

"If there was an issue or concern, is there someone or somebody we should be calling? The answer is 'yes;' there are multiple resources available for you if you have a need, or for others if you see a need."

The list of resources -- one designed specifically for use by students, the other for faculty and staff -- covers more situations than people realize, says Nancy J. Smyth, dean of UB's School of Social Work.

"I think people are not always clear about the range of possibilities that they could be concerned about or take action on," she says. "There's a perception that you can't do anything about these situations. People feel that they can't do anything, so they don't do anything. The reality is that there are a lot more options than people realize, but they just have to speak up."

The list of situations in which some sort of action is needed runs the gamut -- from individuals carrying weapons and exhibiting bizarre or aggressive behavior to showing signs of alcohol or drug use or being a victim of domestic abuse. The resources for consultation and referral are equally diverse, ranging from University Police to Student Affairs to Counseling Services to the Office of Equity, Diversity and Affirmative Action Administration.

One new resource now available for faculty and staff is a hotline operated by the Employee Assistance Program. The hotline -- 645-4500 -- is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to faculty and staff members if they need advice regarding one of their peers.

All of these resources are for consultation and referral, Blacks stresses. "It's not how to throw people out of the university," he says.

Adds Lucinda M. Finley, professor of law and vice provost for faculty affairs: "It's not punitive. It's about being a responsible member of the community and helping people get help," she says.

In providing the list of resources, the university is "empowering" members of the campus community to take action, Black says. "If they see individuals who may have needs, we have a way to think about what those should be -- the consultation part -- and places for them to go, people who can respond" -- the referral.

The Virginia Tech tragedy provided some valuable lessons regarding preparedness and communication, Black notes. "People want to know about issues; people need to know who to call if there's a concern," he says. "We've learned that we need to encourage people if they see something that doesn't seem right to not let it go."

Smyth points out that most of these resources have long been in place at the university. "This (initiative) is about communicating and coordinating and making sure that everyone has full access and full understanding of what's available," she says.

Raab points out that like any community, UB relies heavily on its citizens to help identify potential threats, "and we appreciate that our campus community is vigilant and watchful.

"Be alert and aware of your surroundings," he advises. "If you notice something or someone that you feel is a threat to your safety, be sure to report this immediately to University Police at 645-2222."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York. UB's more than 27,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.