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Campus Alerts system expands reach via Twitter

Published: January 30, 2013, 9:55 pm ET
Collegian Reporter

Richmond students and staff are alerted by phone calls, emails or sirens whenever emergency information or safety measures need to be spread on campus, but these same alerts have not been offered to parents and community members.

As of last month, though, campus emergency alerts became available to everyone through Twitter, said Brittany Schaal, director of emergency management.

All people have to do — even those without Twitter — is send a message to 40404 that says, “Follow @URAlert,” to receive campus emergency alerts from the @URAlert Twitter page via text message, Schaal said.

After Schaal and Doug West, assistant vice president of telecom, multimedia support and user services, tested this “Fast Follow” system in mid-December, university officials sent letters to local residents to inform them of their ability to register for this program for free, apart from potential data rates, Schaal said.

The university’s other emergency alert platforms were connected to university e-mail and BannerWeb, which made them exclusive to students and staff, Schaal said. Community members had sought inclusion into campus emergency alerts to know what action they should take in case of any emergency, especially with high winds, tornadoes and hurricanes, Schaal said. Others wanted to receive alerts in case active shooters were present in the area because they could wander off campus into neighborhoods, she said.

Now, through the Blackboard Connect program, authorized campus emergency management officials can compose and submit one message, which can be sent to all e-mail and text message subscribers and the @URAlert Twitter page, West said.

West and other members of information services will regularly scan the system, provide technical support and correspond with Blackboard to ensure that all the components of this system function properly, he said.

“This system, especially the Twitter page, gives us the important ability to communicate to more people than those with a Richmond e-mail address,” West said. “Now, anyone can obtain emergency information.”

University officials encouraged anyone with ties to the campus community to follow the @URAlert page on Twitter, even if they had already subscribed to emergency alerts via text message, call or email under the BannerWeb system that had been used for years, Schaal said. Twitter provided a means to instantly share information that these other platforms could not supply without slowing alerts to students and staff, she said.

Schaal also had worked on changing the online interface of emergency alerts, she said.

“We have implemented the preparedness website now, preparedness.richmond.edu, which is a more proactive approach dealing with building coordination and hazards most likely to affect campus,” Schaal said. “Our old alert website, alert.richmond.edu, is now where we put information on closings and situation updates in a continual feed, and will only be used in an emergency.”

Within one month, the @URAlert page had already accumulated 61 more followers than the URAlert Facebook page had, about 16, before it was deleted, Schaal said.

“This allows us to reach a broader audience,” Schaal said. “We want to have as many means as possible to reach people immediately — the more ways we can get to people, the better chance we can use our system to keep them safe. As means of mass communication are evolving, we are evaluating how we can use them in the best way for our audience.”

As part of this effort, alerts that had been published on the UR Alerts Facebook page would now appear on the main University of Richmond Facebook page, and @URAlert posts would also appear on the main University of Richmond Twitter feed, @urichmond, Schaal said.

“By cross-posting on those sites, we’re hitting at least 7,100 people—probably much more,” Schaal said.

Though Schaal and most users had been pleased and excited with the “Fast Follow” program, not all had been satisfied with it, she said. Users received occasional messages to follow other Twitter users, and it still had not helped much to reach other demographics, she said. She had made reaching those demographics and creating a logo and Twitter avatar for the department her new top priorities, she said.

Contact reporter Zak Kerr at zachary.kerr@richmond.edu

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