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New messaging system among campus strategies for emergencies

Sharita Forrest, News Editor
217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

Released 10/3/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois is launching a new emergency communication system that will alert students and faculty and staff members to crisis situations on campus by way of mass text and e-mail messages.

The emergency messaging system – one of several emergency communications strategies for the campus – was developed by Mutare Software, a company based in Schaumburg, Ill., that has developed similar systems for the U.S. Senate, General Electric and Ohio University.

The system enables authorized campus officials to send thousands of text and e-mail messages to cell phones, PDAs, computers and other devices to alert people to emergencies that may affect their health or safety.

The system, which will be used to broadcast information to the entire campus community only when there is information about potentially life-threatening situations, will be used on a smaller scale to contact first responders about urgent situations. The system can be programmed to require a response from recipients, such as an acknowledgment or yes or no answer, a feature that will be used only when sending messages to small groups of people, not the entire campus.

Students and faculty and staff members are requested to log on to the emergency system Web site at emergency.illinois.edu and enter their contact information. Each person can enter up to three e-mail addresses and two text-message addresses. Users can change, add to or delete their contact information at any time.

It should be noted that the system can deliver messages more quickly to e-mail accounts on university-owned e-mail systems and cannot control the speed of delivery to users’ accounts with Internet service providers such as Gmail.

While supplying the contact information is voluntary, enrolling will ensure that members of the campus community receive critical information in the most efficient manner possible. People who elect not to sign up for the messaging service will receive emergency alerts only by e-mail to the address they have listed in the campus directory, but everyone is urged to enter alternate e-mail addresses as well. People who want to receive alerts by text messages to their electronic devices or other notifications will need to enter that information into the system.

Staff members in Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services have been testing the system’s capacity and performance in recent weeks and plan a series of larger-scaled tests in the future as well as regular, ongoing tests. Students and faculty and staff members may be asked to participate in future tests.

“We think that the emergency messaging system is going to enhance our ability to contact a large number of people quickly, but no one system is going to reach everyone,” said Krystal Fitzpatrick, interim chief of police and director of public safety. “We have a multitude of avenues for reaching people, and the messaging system is just one component of the campus emergency communications strategy that includes disseminating information through mass e-mail, a telephone tree, local radio and television stations, and the 265-UIPD (265-8473) telephone number.”

Additionally, a pop-up message will appear on the Web browsers of computers connected to the U. of I. network in emergency situations that contains a link to an announcement with information/instructions.

The campus also recently activated a conference bridge telephone system that enables members of the campus emergency operations committee to conduct immediate conference calls about emergent situations 24 hours a day. The Champaign County Emergency Management Agency has agreed to facilitate broadcasting messages over National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radios.

The emergency messaging system can be activated by phone and online by authorized UI personnel, including the chancellor, provost, chief of police, university president and their designees.