Utah State University’s emergency notification system isn’t reaching the campus community with the efficiency campus officials say it’s capable of — and it’s because students, staff and faculty just aren’t signing up.
The USU Code Blue Alert system can send notifications through email, voicemail, text message and through the university’s many digital channels. But messages too often find themselves unchecked in people’s email inboxes, USU emergency management coordinator Judy Crockett said.
“In email there’s no urgency,” Crockett said. “I want to protect them as much as I possibly can, and this is such a great tool.”
When a Code Blue alert is sent, more than 39,000 email addresses on file for the students, staff and faculty that make up the statewide USU ecosystem can be tapped, but individuals have to opt-in to receive texts or voicemails – and most haven’t.
There are 9,491 numbers registered to receive phone calls and 7,638 registered for text notifications. In addition, those numbers are inflated by individuals who have multiple devices registered to the system.
During the 2016-17 year, the university shut down three times because of heavy snowfall. Code Blue sprang into action with updates sent to phones and email.
“We still had students showing up at 7 a.m. for class,” USU Police Department Capt. Kent Harris said.
“Our concern,” Harris added, “is if and when something does happen, they’re not going to be notified and they’ll enter a situation they’re not prepared for.”
The USU Police Department, along with the USU Emergency Management Department, do presentations, signup booths and awareness campaigns to get the campus community to sign up for Code Blue.
“We can only educate somebody so much, then it falls to the student or the staff or faculty to move forward,” Harris said.
A look to universities further south, though, may provide insights to the USU campus officials who are struggling to get people signed up — and point to a decade-old missed opportunity for USU.
Before 2014, the University of Utah struggled to get its campus community signed up for texts and calls from its emergency notification system.
“I had to wrangle up and convince people to sign up,” said Stuart Moffat, the associate director of Emergency Management Services at the U.
Moffat said the school tried everywhere it could think of to get the word out: all-day sign-up tables, newspaper ads, bus wraps and banners and only ever saw 20 percent of its campus community register.
However, a visit from a Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University spokesperson set the ball rolling in a different direction.
A room full of campus officials sat together at a table in early 2014 while the university police chief walked them through an active shooter scenario. The exercise allowed university officials to practice and discuss their response to such a crisis.
“I assume you have an emergency alert?” Moffat said the Virginia Tech official asked.
Virginia Tech was rocked by a massacre in 2007 that left 32 people and the gunman dead. The official, according to Moffat, explained that the institution’s emergency alert system had been opt-in at the time — just like the U.
The official said Virginia Tech’s notification system was one of the reasons it was met with such heavy scrutiny at the time of the shooting. A state panel organized to review the school’s handling of the shooting chastised the school’s response, which it said lead to a higher loss of life. “We didn’t alert people at the right time,” Moffat said the official told the U’s administration.
“Right at the table, the president looked at the vice president and said, ‘Make it happen,’” Moffat said. “That was a big day for us.”
The U had a prototype for a new opt-out approach in six months and debuted the new system in late 2014. The update requires action from faculty, staff and students before they use the campus information system. There’s no way around the window except to insert one to three cell phone numbers for emergency alerts – or to opt out, which people can review once a year, Moffat said.
The U now touts a system with roughly 98 percent of its campus community signed up to receive text messages.
Moffat said the change was a paradigm shift in how the university can spread information in an emergency.
“In this day and age, it would be hard for a higher education institution to defend an opt-in strategy,” he said. “For us, it took the president as our champion to prioritize the change.”
But a decade ago, Crockett said, USU officials shied away from an opt-out system.
“I don’t know the reasoning why,” she added. “I would love to see it mandatory.”
Farther south, Brigham Young University still registers more numbers to its emergency notification system than USU and the private university accredits its numbers to test notifications.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the school has around 50 percent of its students, staff and faculty signed up to receive text message alerts in case of emergency. Those numbers, she said, usually rise after the school sends out two yearly test notifications, which bump registration for the system by 10 percent each time. Although, USU also sends out two emergency notifications each year, according to the 2017 Annual Campus Security and Fire Safety Report.
To learn more about Code Blue and to sign up, visit here.
“We want to keep our students informed,” Harris said. “We want to keep them safe — and to be safe is to be informed.”
Image courtesy of Utah State University