The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Crisis notification system launches

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, August 24, 2007

Notre Dame will launch a mass notification system this fall to enable administrators to notify students of any campus emergency via e-mail, text message and voice mail.

The University began exploring the idea of putting a notification system in place during the fall of 2006, said Jay Steed, executive assistant to Chief Information Officer Gordon Wishon.

The Office of Information Technologies had originally planned to do a pilot project with the notification system, Steed said. But Notre Dame sped up its plan this spring following April’s tragedy at Virginia Tech.

Notre Dame officials signed a contract May 23 with the Connect-ED service, a company that uses web-based technology to help clients send messages to large numbers of people in a short period of time.

The Office of the Registrar sent students an e-mail Aug. 22 requesting they submit a cell phone number and a non-Notre Dame e-mail address when they enroll for the semester. This contact information will be kept private and will be used only for emergency notifications, Steed said.

University President Father John Jenkins sent an e-mail to the student body Aug. 13 in which he described the notification system and requested that students participate in the program.

“Our hope and prayer is that we never need to use the system at Notre Dame, but we want to be certain that everything is in place should a major emergency occur,” Jenkins said in the e-mail.

With Connect-ED, the University can upload contact information for students, faculty and staff onto a Web portal. The system allows information to be sent in several ways, including text messages, voice mail messages and e-mails. Clients of Connect-ED can design pre-scripted messages and can also write new messages according to the circumstances of the emergency.

The prerecorded messages were composed by the Office of News and Information, Steed said. They have already preloaded messages for potential emergencies, such as tornados, lightening, a gunman on campus and a gas leak, among others. The Office of News and Information will most likely send out the notifications, said Micki Kidder, the Vice Chair of the Emergency Planning Committee at Notre Dame.

“The idea is to provide the safest environment we can for the Notre Dame community,” Steed said.

The service costs $2 per person for one year of unlimited messages. Notre Dame currently has contact information for 16,500 people, largely from the Office of the Registrar, since students must provide a contact number during web enrollment. The service allows multiple numbers and e-mail addresses for each person – hence the University’s request for cell phone numbers and non-Notre Dame e-mail addresses.

“The goal is to reach the maximum amount of people in as short a time as possible,” Steed said. They are still exploring other avenues to reach people, and the University is working with Comcast to develop a means of communication through campus television. They are also developing a Web site to alert visitors to emergency situations on campus.

“If we reach enough of the campus through different vectors, people will start to talk and go to the Web site to find out what is going on,” Steed said.

The University will test the service in the next few weeks. Thereafter, it will be tested once each semester to confirm reliability.

Saint Mary’s will also use Connect-ED to notify students of any emergency.

“New students and their parents have responded to the Connect-Ed system positively,” said Melanie McDonald, a spokesperson for Saint Mary’s. “They are grateful to know that student safety is a top priority, and that we have begun to implement a very efficient emergency communication system.”

The College has been studying a variety of mass notification options for quite some time, McDonald said. The system’s adoption is not a direct result of the Virginia Tech shootings, she said, and its implementation will not affect tuition costs.

Natasha Rabe, the Chief Business Officer at NTI Group, the company that distributes the Connect-ED service, said the company saw an increase in inquiries about their product after the Virginia Tech incident.

“College campuses across the nation are all addressing this issue right now,” she said.

The company has contracts with Princeton University, Tulane University, Texas Tech University and the University of Oklahoma, among other schools. Approximately one million students, faculty and staff have their contact information registered on the service.

Rabe stressed the importance of students participating in the program.

“We’ve all got to work together, including students, to understand the issue and make sure we’ve got paths to communicate,” she said.

The new notification system is the first part of a series of plans Notre Dame has in place in case of an emergency on campus. A special task force is in charge of an annual review and update of the emergency plans.

Kidder, who is the Assistant Director of the Board Secretariat in the President’s Office, as well as other members of the Emergency Planning Committee, are routinely in the process of updating plans for various emergency scenarios that could occur on campus.

They plan to create a Web site to house the University emergency plans during the next few months.

“We want and encourage students, staff and faculty to familiarize themselves with the plan,” Kidder said.

Liz Harter contributed reporting to this story.