Colleges Want to Issue Wireless Emergency Alerts

Public safety officials from institutions of higher education are keeping a close eye on the nationwide text emergency alert system, which debuted on June 28. Called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), the new system promises to reach more people in a targeted area than other methods because it is free and does not require the public to sign up or download an app to receive 90-character emergency messages.

College and university officials believe WEAs might be a good way to reach campus visitors who are not signed up for the institution’s SMS text alert system. A significant barrier to this is the fact that as the WEA system is currently managed, colleges and universities do not have the ability to initiate warnings. Instead, the alerts, particularly ones related to weather, are usually issued at the county level.

Officials from some of the larger campuses, such as Ohio State University (OSU), which has more than 90,000 students, faculty and staff and is the eighth largest city in Ohio, are having discussions with county, state and federal authorities in hopes that they will be granted access to the system.

“Our goal would be to issue our own [alerts] if at all possible,” says OSU Director of Emergency Management and Fire Prevention Bob Armstrong. “We’ve struggled with the severe weather sirens we have on campus. They are controlled by the county, and we don’t have access to those. We’ve learned our lesson from that, and we would like to have the power to issue alerts ourselves.”

Other campus protection professionals aren’t as optimistic that their institutions will one day be able to initiate WEAs.

“I don’t ever see us having access to the Emergency Alert System (EAS) or even Commercial Mobile Telephone Alerts (CMAS) even though they can be more targeted,” claims Florida State University Emergency Manager Dave Bujak. “I can see where FEMA takes the approach ‘You work with your local or state emergency management agency,’ but not every emergency management agency is willing to work with you.”

Another challenge with weather alerts being sent at the county level is that they could cause confusion among populations on campuses that already have SMS text alerting programs for severe weather. Because of this, some institutions are revising their protocols and providing education to their communities to address this potential problem.

But even if campuses were granted authorization to issue WEAs, currently very few cell phones are able to receive the messages. For example, Verizon only has 13 WEA-capable devices available (six are Droids, four are LG handsets and one is from Samsung).

That being said, campus public safety officials like John Hauser, who is the safety manager for the University of Nebraska Medical Center, are keeping an open mind.

“In the future, it might be significant. Especially if campuses can tap into it.”

Campus Safety attempted to reach the FCC and FEMA officials by phone regarding this issue but they did not return our calls.

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Photo via Flickr, Esther Gibbons

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