Minnesota University Uses Notification to Recruit Flood Volunteers

Through the university’s preparation for the event, as well as its e2Campus mass notification system, MSUM was not only able to notify students and staff of life safety information, but also gather enough sandbagging volunteers to prevent further damage to the city.

Minnesota State University, Moorhead (MSUM) students and faculty banned together to prepare for heavy floods from the Red River, which crested at a record-setting high on March 28. Through the university’s preparation for the event, as well as its e2Campus mass notification system, MSUM was not only able to notify students and staff of life safety information, but also gather enough sandbagging volunteers to prevent further damage to the city.

Shortly after each request for help was sent out, hundreds of student volunteers would show up to help sandbag. According to Michael Parks, director of security for MSUM, text messaging was the most efficient of all the modes used, as it was immediate and friends near the recipients would be informed of the news as well.

The university’s center registered 20,000 volunteers, and according to Parks, “a large portion of them were university students.” This included students from a nearby private university as well. Altogether, more than one million sandbags were packed and used to construct levees along private property near the river and in some open areas to control water direction.

Parks estimates sandbagging efforts saved more than two-thirds of the city. Although the flood is estimated to have caused at least $17 million in damage, MSUM was left undamaged. “We’re at one of the highest points in the city,” he says. “The only thing we had anticipated was sewer water infrastructure problems, which didn’t happen.” Security, however, did empty the residence halls in anticipation of this problem.

Incident Prompts 1,000 Users to Sign Up for System

Altogether, 20 messages were sent out to MSUM students and staff. The communications included numerous calls for volunteers, life safety information and class cancellations. It was an efficient way to communicate with a large commuter population. “If students were trying to get to class and going over flooded roads, [we wanted] to let them know when classes were canceled, or of dangerous areas or things to watch out for,” says Parks.

Out of an estimated 8,000 people, 2,000 students and staff were signed up for the text messaging alert system before the flood. “After we started sending the first text messages, we saw a spike of 900-1,000 users within just days.” They were also able to get in contact with families of students who had signed up for the notification.

Fifteen people at the university are authorized to send emergency messages, but the majority of messages for the flood were sent by two people. Administrators logged on to the e2Campus Web site to send the notifications, and those with Internet on their cell phones were able to send emergency communications remotely.

Because text messages allow only a limited number of characters, the wording of messages was important. Parks says, “We have some preloaded templates we do use, and we use abbreviations that we expect students would respond to.”

Despite the amount of cellular traffic on the system and the number of messages sent, Parks experienced no problems in delays or unsent messages. “The system worked as promised and as designed,” he says.

MSUM Classes Canceled for 2 Weeks

The region was still in major flood category in mid-April and expected a second crest. However, Parks says classes were back in session at MSUM after being interrupted for two full weeks. Because the river head had subsided after the first crest and estimates of the second crest were lowered, classes were uninterrupted during the second crest.

Parks commends student volunteers and the mass notification system for its direct contribution to saving the city. “Our students saved the community, and without being able to communicate directly to their phone via text message, the response would have been much lower,” he says. “We would have seen things much more disastrous in this part of the country without using the emergency notification service.”

Tags: emergency alerts, emergency text messaging, funding, emergency management, risk management

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