Cell phone becomes new town crier

Universities and cities are seeing how these staples of 21st century society can be turned into tools for keeping people informed and protected.

Universities and some cities are starting to recognize cell phones as efficient tools for protecting and connecting students and citizens.

More than 233 million people in the U.S. subscribe to a cell phone service, and many of those people view their cell phones as the one item they do not leave the house without. University officials and community leaders are just now starting to see how these staples of 21st century society can be turned into tools to keep citizens and students better informed about their community and better protected from harm.

"Our vision is to open the cellular phone network up so that communities can better connect with people living in those areas," said Rodger Desai, president and CEO of Rave Wireless, a company that develops software applications for universities to send cell phone communications to students. "Colleges are really a microcosm of the world. This technology can be used in any community to inform people of emergencies or just provide local updates."

The tragedy this week at Virginia Tech, where 33 students and professors lost their lives in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, has highlighted how something as simple as a text message alert could have potentially saved lives.

Officials at the school have been criticized in the aftermath of the tragedy for not alerting students of the situation sooner. Students have reported they did not receive e-mails regarding the situation on campus until two hours after the first shooting in one of the dormitories.

Alerts could save lives
Much of the delay in alerting students likely falls in the hands of authorities, who were assessing the situation on campus, and not the technology itself. But some experts say that e-mail is not the best form of communication for such critical alerts. They suggest SMS text messaging as a more effective way of alerting students.

"Text messaging alerts would have been an excellent way to inform students on the Virginia Tech campus that there was a security issue," said Alison Kiss, program director for Security on Campus, a not-for-profit group that promotes collegiate security. "Virtually every college student today has a cell phone with them at all times. It's just a much more effective way of communicating an urgent message than leaving it to e-mail, which people may not check all the time."

Several companies, such as E2Campus and Rave Wireless, offer text messaging solutions that colleges can use to send out mass SMS alerts. Of the 3,000 universities and colleges in the United States, 70 of them are already using Rave's solution, including University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., and Park University in Parkville, Mo., Desai said.

Earlier in the year, Virginia Tech officials had considered deploying an emergency cell phone text-messaging system after an accused murderer was found running loose on the campus, according to news reports. But the school has not deployed such an alert system.

According to a recent study from Forrester Research, roughly 35 percent of the entire mobile phone subscriber population in the U.S. has used text messaging, a seemingly simple and cheap way to communicate important information to students on campus or even people within communities. Westchester County in New York already sends residents text message alerts, in addition to e-mails, in cases of emergency.

Beyond text messaging
But text message alerts are only one cell phone application that universities and communities can exploit to keep students and residents informed. Rave Wireless also sells a comprehensive solution called Rave Guardian that combines, text message alerts and GPS tracking services to help turn students' cell phones into personal alarm devices that can be used in a crisis.

Students can opt-in to a service with their school to give campus security the ability to locate them in the event of an emergency through a GPS-enabled handset, which receives satellite signals to pinpoint location. Since the FCC now requires all mobile operators to provide location information for E911 emergency purposes, most new phones sold in the U.S. already have this capability built in.

Rave has also built software that can be integrated into some cell phones that allows students on campuses where the Rave Guardian system is deployed to press a panic button that connects them directly to campus security if they feel they are in danger. Students can even send photos directly to campus security when they hit the panic button.

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