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UA text messaging is another post-Virginia Tech method of emergency response

When Flagstaff police went on a car chase following a bank robber on Oct. 2, it provided NAU a chance to use its new emergency response text messaging system to alert students and faculty that a cops-and-robbers chase was speeding straight through campus.

NAU, ASU and, as of last week, the UA entered a new world of campus security after the Virginia Tech shootings in April. Text messaging was one of the recommendations released in August by the Virginia Tech Review Panel along with a series of other details on how local mental health, law enforcement and campus police could have reacted differently before, during and after the murders of 33 students and teachers.

Now about 900 other colleges across the country have a text messaging system in place to reach out via cell phone or PDA during a campus emergency.

Steve Holland, UA risk management director, said when the Virginia Tech panel released its findings all colleges took a second look at emergency plans. Text messaging was recommended in the plan because it allows college emergency response teams to notify a large campus population at one time.

Holland said the UA has gone through its own learning curves in dealing with campus emergencies and had been looking at different systems prior to Virginia Tech.

On Oct. 28, 2002, a failing UA Nursing College student and Gulf War veteran walked into an instructor's office and fatally shot her. A few minutes later, armed with five guns, he entered one of his nursing classrooms. Inside, 30 students were taking a midterm exam. He shot two instructors in the classroom twice. Then he shot himself.

Most recently, on Sept.5, a UA student allegedly stabbed her roommate in her sleep in the Graham-Greenlee dormitory. The next day, students were greeted by police cars and emergency responders on Highland Avenue. As rumors circulated, some students had said they panicked, wondering if their own lives were in danger. In the end, the student-run Arizona Daily Wildcat campus newspaper praised the UA law enforcement in an editorial on how the case was handled.

From Holland's perspective, text messaging doesn't create a sudden protective bubble for those on campus, but if it had been in effect during the nursing college shootings and the recent murder, it would have kept panic and rumors to a minimum.

Right after the nursing college shooting, campus computers crashed as thousands entered the UA's Web site for information. Holland said as a result the UA increased its server capacity and created a listserv to go out to all students and faculty during an emergency.

Students and faculty have to sign up initially for the new service and have a cell phone account that includes text messaging. The text messaging system can go a step further if students and faculty choose to take advantage of adding a second cell phone to their account, such as a parent or a spouse.

While Holland said he's pleased with the series of steps the UA has taken since 2002, Virginia Tech looms over the emergency planning efforts at the UA and other colleges. There are expectations of student care. Those expectations are only increased by the implementation of the text messaging system. Holland said he's concerned how far the UA is expected to stretch its obligation to care for the safety of it students.

No one knows for sure if any safety procedures will prevent a campus-wide tragedy from occurring again, he said. There are 50,000 students on campus any given day. How to reach all of them at one time during an emergency is a challenge a text messaging system or a listserv will fix to some degree, Holland said.

According to Brian Seastone, UA police commander, his department is researching a public address system. Electronic reader boards posted outside different buildings are another method the police department has researched; both could be connected to the text messaging system.

Old air raid technology remains in place in many colleges on the East Coast and in the Midwest, where hurricanes and tornados are a fact of life. In the desert, Seastone said, most facilities don't have the old air raid structure in place.

"We have sun and dust," Seastone said.

The planning involved from Seastone's perspective doesn't involve Virginia Tech. The UA police and a campus-wide emergency response team have been discussing a text messaging system for the past 18 months. It's an ongoing planning effort that looks at all emergencies, not just violent incidences, but terrorism, pandemic flu and fires, too.

Besides computers and cell phones, Seastone said the simple paper flyer remains an effective tool, especially during sexual assault investigations to warn female students a predator is on campus or near campus housing.

Still, violent acts, like stabbings and rapes are not a growing issue at the UA. Seastone said campus thefts and burglaries take the lead in UA crime statistics. All stats are available on the UA police department's Web site.

Seastone said the UA police continue to look at the next system that the administration will green light. Holland said a PA system is plausible, but in the end depends on the UA's budget. There is no timeline in place, he said.

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