With last week’s shooting at Northern Illinois University fresh in the public’s memory, Canadian universities and colleges are continuing to prepare mass-messaging security systems as a way to alert students in the event of similar emergencies on campus.
Last week, U of T signed a contract with Aizan Technologies, a Richmond Hill-based company that provides a mass text-messaging system. At a cost of $30,000 per use, Aizan can notify an entire university of a suspected threat or emergency through its phone, email, and text-messaging capabilities.Erin Lemon, of U of T’s strategic communications department, said that the system will be a subscriptionbased service that students and staff can sign up for on a website expected to be up and running in late March.“One of the reasons why we chose Aizan, in addition to the system itself— which is very good—is that all the data will live here in Canada.” said Lemon. “So that means we won’t be sending student, faculty, or staff information to live on servers in the U.S.”A number of universities have shown interest in text messaging security systems, including McMaster, Dalhousie, and UBC.A research group has launched a three-year study to determine whether the security systems are an effictive notification tool for campus emergencies. The Campus Emergency Messaging Research Group, established in the wake of 2007’s Virginia Tech Shooting, was formed last November by Simon Fraser University, the University of Alberta, and the University of New Brunswick.Gordon Gow, CEMRG’s lead investigator and U of A professor, said the study looks at the impact of new technology, such as emailing, paging, voice mailing, and text messaging.“Students are now able to communi- cate directly with each other through mobile phones, able to take pictures, upload images on the internet, and they use Facebook and Wikipedia for real time reporting of incidents,” said Gow.“We will look at how peer-to-peer and social networking technology have both positive and negative impacts on universities who are trying to manage or deal with a crisis on campus.”The study also looks at behavioural responses and the social dynamics of a mass alert, and policy and legal aspects. Recent campus shootings and scares have led Canadian institutions to rethink their current security and safety plans. American universities have seen a string of high-profile shootings, but Canadian schools are no strangers to crisis.In 2006, a shooter at Dawson’s College in Montreal killed two students, including himself, and injured 19.On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine, 25, shot and killed 14 female students at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, screaming “I hate feminists” before firing at the women, whom he separated from their male classmates. The anniversary of the Montreal massacre is now observed as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.In 1992, Montreal was again the setting of a school massacre, when a former Concordia University engineering professor went on a shooting spree, killing four faculty members and injuring a fifth.On Jan. 30, UBC’s Biological Sciences building went under lockdown after someone phoned in a threat. One week later, another threat was made. However, no particular building was named during the second incident and the two threats are still under investigation by the RCMP.UBC purchased Aizan’s system last December, and are currently testing and inputting information into the system.According to Scott Macrae, UBC’s public affairs director, the university’s recent threats have increased student interest in the system.“When the students came in September, they were asked to volunteer their cell phone numbers, in the event that we got such a system,” said Macrae. “About 38 per cent of students volunteered to provide their cell phone numbers.”SFU has also signed up with Canadian mass messaging company 3N.“Mass messaging has the ability to reach a lot of people fast,” said Don MacLachlan, director of SFU’s media relations. “Certainly if you are in a situation like a chemical spill, an explosion, a fire, or some maniac on campus has a gun, you need to be able to reach a lot of people fast.”However, not all universities are considering text messaging as a campus notification tool.Acadia University equips a Blue Light emergency phone system. The University of Lethbridge is implementing an IP phone system that can make an announcement or break into any phone conversation in any classroom. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology relies on its PA system and plasma television screens.Kim Carr, UOIT’s public safety manager, pointed out the flaw in mass text messaging.“What they’re finding is that using cell phones all at once can crash and override a system,” said Carr. “It happened at Dawson, in Virginia Tech. In fact, in Northern Illinois, it even crashed the telephone system.”“So text messaging, yes, is a viable option, but it’s not the only option.”