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



Emergency notifications tested

Marcela Berrios | Monday, October 1, 2007

Notre Dame sent out a wave of text messages to more than 75 percent of students Wednesday, asking them to confirm their registration in the SMS portion of the University’s emergency notification system – but the future success of this aspect of the initiative is contingent on the students’ response rate, said Jay Steed, executive assistant to Chief Information Officer Gordon Wishon Sunday.

Before the University conducts a full-scale trial run of its new mass notification system – which would serve to swiftly inform the campus of emergencies through e-mails, text messages and voice mails – mobile phone users had to confirm their willingness to receive these text messages, as required by most carriers.

“The majority of cellular [phone] carriers will not send text messages to mass mailing lists without individual confirmation,” Steed said. “Most carriers will not allow companies to create mass text message mailings lists unless they first provide an option for people to confirm they want to be a part of that or give them the option to opt out of that. It’s not something the University chose to do on its own, but rather something Connect-ED asked us to do because many of the carriers require it.”

Connect-ED, the company Notre Dame contracted to send the text- and voice-based notifications to thousands of mobile phones, has an online interface where the Office of the Registrar can upload both the text and the recorded voicemail messages it wants to send out.

This service, Steed said, allows the University to keep control over the content of the messages that reach the campus community. The Office of the Registrar informed students via e-mail Tuesday that those who signed up for emergency alerts on their mobile phones would be receiving a text message from Connect-ED that was actually produced by the University.

The e-mail said the text message would read: “Univ of Notre Dame: You have asked to receive SMS alerts from us. You must text reply ‘Y NDIRISH’ to confirm this request.”

When students opened their phones Wednesday, the message said: “UNIV OF NOTRE DAME: You must reply ‘Y NDIRISH’ to confirm your desire to receive future SMS alerts. More info text ‘HELP.'”

Moreover, to mobile phone users, the sender of the message appeared as “231-77,” which led some students to believe the message was not legitimate.

“I didn’t recognize the phone number, and I didn’t really remember the e-mail that had been sent out, so when I got the message I didn’t reply because I thought it was spam,” senior Michelle Mas said.

Steed said in the future students should be aware 231-77 is Connect-ED’s number because the Office of Information Technologies has specified that information on its Web site.

In the event of a campus emergency, Steed said, students who fail to reply positively to the confirmation request will not receive a text-message alert – but that doesn’t mean they won’t receive other forms of notifications.

“Students that don’t send out a confirmation reply will not receive any additional text messages from Connect-ED in the future, but in the event of an emergency they will receive the e-mails and the voice mails,” Steed said.

But based on the number of students who provided Notre Dame with emergency cell phone numbers, the University expects mobile phones to become one of the more prominent avenues for warning students of any campus crises.

During this fall’s online registration, more than 95 percent of the student body provided an emergency cell phone number to the Office of the Registrar, which would produce any mass notifications sent out during an emergency, Steed said.

Of this 95 percent, he said more than 80 percent additionally signed up to receive emergency text messages. Steed said the University expects to get 75-85 percent of those students to validate their enrollment in the program with a confirmation reply, a benchmark based on the results observed at peer institutions with similar notification systems.

Steed said he didn’t have the total number of students who replied to Wednesday’s initial confirmation request because the University is still waiting to receive more text-message answers in the coming weeks.

Besides the students who signed up to receive SMS alerts, Wishon said, Connect-ED will also handle the emergency notifications sent out to faculty and staff members.

“The University has over 16,000 people in the system,” Wishon said Sunday. “And the whole point of all this is to be able to contact as many of them and as quickly as we can to alert them of any emergencies on campus.”

Some of the potential emergencies include tornadoes, lightning, dangerous gas leaks or even gunmen on campus. The plans and efforts underway to develop a systematic way of notifying the campus of any emergencies were only sped up after last spring’s murders at Virginia Tech.

A full-scale trial run of the entire notification system will be conducted later this semester, Steed said.

“Right now we know the system works, that students get the text messages. But sometime later this semester there will be a coordinated effort within the University to test the entire notification system, which includes the text messages, the voicemail [messages] and the e-mails,” Steed said.