When an assault occurred in Poly Canyon Village parking structure late Sept. 27, computer engineering freshman Nestor Alvarez was in his dorm. He, like many other students, received a mass text a few hours after the incident informing him that a suspect with a knife was loose on campus.
Alvarez’s phone number is one of approximately 10,000 numbers that are part of the PolyAlert text message system. While Alvarez’s reaction was to continue on with his evening in the dorms, he said that getting that text made him feel safer on campus.
However, approximately 15,000 people on campus did not receive that PolyAlert text message.
They found out about the attacker through the email sent out later that day, another part of the Poly Alert system.
David Ragsdale, director of environmental health and safety at Cal Poly, called the text alert system a “centerpiece” for Cal Poly’s multimedia approach to emergency notifications “so that we’re not just relying on one means of communication.”
“We also send campuswide emails, have a system to turn campus phones into speakerphones, have a couple of outdoor speakers and are about to go live with a digital signage system that will be attached to text system (and) display text messages on digital signs,” Ragsdale said.
The text message system was implemented five years ago this month at Cal Poly, following the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, where a student came to campus with a gun and killed more than 30 students and injured 17 others.
Ragsdale, who has been a key person in the formation of the text system on campus, said when there was an active shooter on Virginia Tech’s campus and no way to immediately communicate the emergency to students, it raised the need to address means for timely notification in the Clery Act.
The Clery Act, a federal law, requires universities nationwide to address the issue of campus safety and called for “a timely notification system for the campuses” in response to the shooting.
It was at that time universities nationwide began to adopt the text message system.
“It makes sense as something that will work when you’re figuring out how you’re going to get information out quickly to a lot of people,” Ragsdale said. “There are other ways to do it; the most obvious is public address system with speakers, but on a big campus like Cal Poly, it becomes very complicated, very time consuming and very expensive.”
The text message system, however, is “pretty easy, pretty quick and relatively inexpensive,” Ragsdale said.
The text message emergency system costs $35,000 each year to operate, and has been used fewer than 10 times for emergencies since its implementation in October 2007.
“We’ve been fortunate not to have had many emergencies,” Ragsdale said.
Ragsdale said the system has been reliable and robust in the times it has been used, but with only 10,268 cell phones on the system compared to the 25,345 emails, emergency text messages are not reaching everyone on campus.
This could be due to the nature of how numbers are added to the system. Since the first introduction of the system, it’s been strictly an “opt-in” system, Ragsdale said, where individuals had to sign up their phone number themselves to be added to the text alert system.
“We’ve tried to advertise over years to get as many people signed up as possible,” Ragsdale said. “But everyone’s got 200 things to do and this is just one of them and it gets forgotten.”
Ragsdale said the emergency operations staff and ITS on campus are working to get more people signed up.
According to Ragsdale, about half of campuses nationwide are using an “opt-out” system, “which means that by default, everyone’s cell phone is enrolled in the system.”
This is something both President Jeffrey Armstrong and Public Affairs Director of Communications Chip Visci are very supportive of.
“It makes sense,” Visci said. “The more people we get emergency information to, the better.”
In order to obtain students’ cell phone numbers, Ragsdale said during this year’s annual security password update on the Cal Poly Portal, “everyone is now going to have to put in their cell number or going to have to check a box that says, ‘No I understand the risk and am choosing not to participate.’”
“I’m hoping we get a lot better participation,” Ragsdale said. “So we’re hoping this way we pop it up right in front of them and they have no choice about that and we’ll get a lot more cell phone numbers.”
Students feel safer on campus with the text message system in place, recreation, parks and tourism administration junior Kaitlyn Defanti said. She likes knowing she will hear about an emergency right away, she said.
“A lot of people have phones on them, and will hear text messages,” Defanti said. “I have email on my phone, but it doesn’t make noise.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: We originally wrote that the emergency text alert system cost $35,000 a month to run. It is actually $35,000 a year. We also identified Chip Visci as the associate vice president of strategic communications. His title is actually director of communications. We apologize for any confusion.