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A hand holds a cell phone with a text message in the display.

About 90 percent of U.S. college students have cell phones, and most use them to send and receive text messages.

Text messaging debuts for emergency communications

Text messaging debuts for emergency communications

By Martha Coventry

November 15, 2007

The Virginia Tech shootings jump-started emergency communications plans at universities all over the country. Schools scrambled to work with existing technologies, and students were changing the way they used those technologies just as fast.

For example, sending out an emergency message via e-mail might have been effective a short time ago, but now students--though they may be glued to Facebook--often don't check their university e-mail accounts for days or weeks.

The University of Minnesota has the common arsenal of emergency communications methods--outdoor sirens, fire alarms, broadcast voice mails and e-mails, pagers, and a radio that emits a tone and message in each department. All are useful in certain situations and provide overall redundancy.

Now the University has made text messaging a major part of its emergency notification system, adding one more way to potentially reach every member of the U as quickly as possible. The new TXT-U system is for students, faculty, and staff and will be used only in the case of an imminent threat or a forced school closing. TXT-U is set to debut on the Twin Cities campus November 16, and the U will implement it on the Crookston, Morris, and Rochester campuses in the near future. The Duluth campus has its own system.

Along with its near ubiquity, text messaging uses less bandwidth than other technologies, so it becomes a smart choice during an emergency that might knock out other modes of communication.

"The safety and security of the University community is our top priority," says Vice President for University Services Kathleen O'Brien. "Text messaging is a quick way to reach people, particularly when time is of the essence. It's also one of the most common ways our students communicate with each other, making it another important way for us to notify the campus community about emergencies."

Why use text messaging?

Most of the cell phones you see glued to the ears of more than 90 percent of U.S. college students are also used to send text-based messages across the globe (and across the classroom) and at all hours. Text messaging has become so common and widespread that it has its very own aliment: "text-messaging thumb." All this popularity makes it an ideal vehicle for emergency messaging.

And along with its near ubiquity, text messaging uses less bandwidth than other technologies, so it becomes a smart choice during an emergency that might knock out other modes of communication. As Tulane University found out during Hurricane Katrina, traditional forms of communication, including telephones, cell phones, and computers, can go down in a disaster. In the end, the only thing that worked for Tulane was text messaging.

Sign up now

In order for text messaging to be effective in an emergency at the University, people have to register their cell phone numbers. It's a simple process, and the U is offering to enter any staff, faculty member, or student who registers by December 15 into a drawing for a free iPod touch.

There is no charge to register for TXT-U; however, your cell phone carrier might charge you to receive text messages, so check your cell phone plan.

To learn more about the University's use of emergency text messaging and to register your cell phone--if you're staff, faculty, or a student--see the TXT-U Web site.