After several botched text alerts to the entire UCSB campus — including one false alarm about a gunman near the library — the university has revamped its campuswide emergency notification system.
UCSB Alert allows university officials to contact students during emergency situations by delivering updates and instructions via text message to email accounts, cell phones or electronic hand held devices. The university’s overhaul has attempted to iron out the kinks UCSB Alert experienced in its initial stages, including text messages that never went through or did not provide the complete warning.
The comprehensive alert system debuted last winter and is jointly managed by Environmental Health and Safety and the UCSB Police Dept. In total, 4,547 students currently subscribe to UCSB Alert, or just 15 percent of the total student population.
Mark McGilvray, strategic planning and projects director in the Student Information Systems and Technology Dept., said while the system had its share of problems in the past, the new network will be more effective.
“We had issues originally,” McGilvray said. “We were sending out 20,000 text messages and they were being blocked by carriers, primarily Verizon, who saw the high number of texts sent over an hour period and started filtering our texts as spam.”
McGilvray said increased communication with cell phone carriers has resolved such technical glitches and improved the overall dependency of the alert network.
“Luckily, we found that out at the beginning and now we send out texts to an aggregator which contacts all of the providers and approves the message,” McGilvray said. “It costs five cents per text but now we can send a blanket text to 20,000 people in five minutes and we know we can comminute with students in the case of an emergency.”
This week, McGilvray said, the university is stepping up its efforts to boost the number of students registered in the system.
“This Friday, we will contact the entire student body through their U-Mail accounts,” McGilvray said. “The whole purpose of the campaign is to have students provide their cell phone number and provider so we can contact their phones in an emergency.”
Although the system went live last year, UCSB Alert is relying on several new tactics this time around in the hopes of expanding campus membership and providing more reliable notifications.
Associate Vice Chancellor Ron Cortez said under the improved system all students will receive a U-Mail notification directing them through the simplified registration process.
“The primary difference between the past and current approach is that now we are proactively e-mailing students a link to log into the system,” Cortez said. “All students have to do is click on the link, enter their provided password, supply their cell phone information, click save and they are done.”
Cortez also said benefits of enrollment warranted student participation.
“It is only to students’ benefit to sign up,” Cortez said. “The system provides direction in emergency situations and makes us all safer on campus.”
Although the alert system suffered from errors early on, McGilvray said one particular success story highlights the potential importance of the system.
“We [issued] an alert regarding a suspicious person on campus who was probably bi-polar and acting strangely,” McGilvray said. “A young woman was on her phone when she received the alert. She was then able to identify the individual, contact 9-1-1 and the UCSB campus police apprehend the individual.”