When I think of emergencies, my mind flashes back to cartoon shows such as “Johnny Quest” and “Superman,” when sirens fired off walls and the characters were warned via video satellite of the immediate danger ahead. While such a system works for TVs and movies, it is not plausible with today’s mobile society. However, the MSU Police Department is now offering a new security service that has been deemed the new solution: the Emergency Text Message Notification System (ETXT).
That’s right, ETXT. It’s a security system that acts as its acronym is spelled: quick and pithy. If there were ever to be an emergency on campus, such as a tornado warning, active shooting or large chemical spill, students’ and faculty members’ cell phones would receive a short text message describing the emergency and any necessary precautions. The same message will also be sent out to students’ loved ones to inform them of the situation on campus, along with their e-mail. But this procedure poses the question – is text messaging really the best option?[ca1]
A 2005 survey conducted by market-research firm Student Monitor reported that 90 percent of U.S. college students owned a cell phone, which makes ETXT appear to be the best tool for getting students, faculty and administrators out of harm’s way. Most people carry their cell phones around campus in their pockets, purses and backpacks, making them easily accessible. And with a projected increase of text messaging over the next few years – 2.3 trillion text messages are expected to be sent by 2010, according to IT research firm Gartner – it seems like a sensible option.
ETXT is just “one more piece of the communications puzzle,” according to MSU Police Inspector Bill Wardwell. He said that while MSU already has reverse 911 systems (when the police will call all the phones on campus and have a recording play when the person picks up), emergency action teams and Web sites in place, the police department felt it could do a better job of reaching students during an emergency.
[pq1]”We felt that we were missing the ability to reach the student,” Wardwell said. “And (with) cell phones being extremely popular and also text-capable with student-age individuals, we thought that this was probably a pretty good way of at least getting the word to a number of people in class.”
And the system is cost effective. According to Wardwell, since ETXT was developed internally, it costs the police department “almost nothing” to send text messages. Students and loved ones receiving ETXTs won’t be charged as well, unless their phone plan charges for text messaging.
Many students agree the ETXT system should be used, especially in the wake of shootings at Virginia Tech, Columbine and other school-related tragedies. “Considering the events of the Virginia Tech shooting last year, I think it’s a very good idea for the police to have a system set up like this so people can know things very quickly,” communication freshman Kristine Kendall said.
And MSU isn’t alone. This program seems to be a national trend among colleges, including Virginia Tech. Many of these schools are either looking into, currently developing or already have their own e-text system. Many schools have the reverse 911 systems and other precautionary aids as well.
Any new system, however, has its flaws. The MSU Police Department’s Web site admits that while it can send millions of text messages at a time, it “cannot guarantee the reliability of the wireless networks.” Bad wireless connections will sometimes cause messages to get either delayed or not show up at all, preventing important information from reaching members of the MSU community.
Text messages also come with a price tag. While the cost per text message is usually low (it ranges from 10-15 cents, according to costhelper.com), some people choose not to have text messaging as a service. While the university allows these people to receive text messages via e-mail, such a system isn’t practical when students are away from their computers. These circumstances pose another important question: Do these people lose out on a life-saving tool? Entomology professor Christina Difonzo does not think so.
“If you got enough people on campus that got this, then they would get a phone call and tell their friends anyway,” she said. “If half the people on campus had this service, they would turn to people in class and say, ‘This just happened.’ So it seems like if there was a critical mass of people, it would be almost like everyone would know about it.” [cell2]
If university officials want the majority of the MSU body to sign up for ETXT, people first have to be aware of it. According to Wardwell, about 10,000 people have signed up for the service as of Sept. 14. With approximately 45,000 students on MSU’s campus alone, it’s safe to say that a lot of people are either apathetic or unaware of ETXT. This notion brings up additional questions. Despite university efforts to inform the MSU community about the service, why haven’t more people heard about it, or signed up for it?
Students can register for ETXT by logging onto the MSU Police Department’s Web site and following the steps given on the home page. For most people, the time component does not defer them for signing up. Rather, most students neglect to register either because they forget or are not aware they can. “I haven’t had time…I really didn’t hear much about it yet,” Kendall said. “I’ve only heard a little bit word of mouth, and I’ve seen a couple of signs, but really, it hasn’t struck me as something significant yet.”
But mainly, people’s ignorance of ETXT comes down to two words: poor marketing. There are very few fliers, posters or any other informational sheets around campus describing the new service. Most of the professors and faculty that know about ETXT haven’t mentioned it to their classes, either because they forget or assume their students have read President Lou Anna K. Simon’s e-mail regarding ETXT’s capabilities. And there have not been any follow-up e-mails by MSU officials since Simon’s initial e-mail, which may have caused many students to forget about the service.
“I actually deleted it first,” Difonzo said. “Then, I think there was something in the newspaper about it, that so many thousands of people in five minutes had signed up, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I should go back to that e-mail,’ because I was kind of curious, so then I actually read the e-mail.”
ETXT, however, is a relatively new service, which may be the reason so few MSU students have registered for the program. President Simon e-mailed the MSU community on Aug. 27, so the program has only been in effect for slightly over a month. Because it is so early in the program, the university does have a chance to revise their promotional strategy and get as many people signed up as possible, despite missed marketing opportunities at the program’s launch.
[wardwell2]One way is to up the advertising. According to Wardwell, university officials and the MSU Police Department considered running ads about ETXT in a few of the local media outlets, as well as printing a message on tuition bills, prior to President Simon’s e-mail. While Wardwell said the department hasn’t used any of these methods yet, he did say the police department will reconsider the options at its next ETXT meeting with the university.
MSU could also target next year’s freshman class. Some of the professors suggest informing incoming freshmen and their parents about ETXT at the summer Academic Orientation Program (AOP). This process ensures both parents and students are aware of the security precautions taken at MSU. At the end of AOP, the university could then have tables for students to sign up for the program. If the university got at least half the freshmen and their parents to sign up, then MSU would be a one step closer to having the entire MSU community participate in ETXT.
So is ETXT the best way of protecting students during an emergency?
“We don’t claim it to be the best,” Wardwell said. “I don’t think there is any one best way, so we take a multi-prong approach for getting information out.”

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