USA Today ran a story recently about how text messaging among students about threats is dramatically increasing absences on school and university campuses:
More than two-thirds of students took a day off April 21 at two high schools in Maury County, Tenn., after threats that came after the funerals of two murdered young people.
•One-third of students at George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester, Ky., left school April 21 after text messages warned that a student would bring a gun to school.
•Nearly a fourth of students at Tokay High in Lodi, Calif., stayed home April 16 after text warnings of a gang shooting.
Since Virginia Tech it has become essential for every university and now schools to have some way of mass direct notification using text, text to voice conversion, digital signboards, etc. That rush has now spread (as I predicted it would I must say) to local governments who are realizing that if students expect to be notified, why not citizens on the street.
Yet, these solutions have massive problems. The systems can be easily jammed up with too much traffic, students refuse to divulge their cell numbers to administrators for privacy reasons, technology itself is not completely reliable, false alarms, and now–students themselves crying “wolf.”
A couple of observations–1) there is no going back. We aren’t going back to the days of USPS delivery pre-Fed Ex and we aren’t going back to relying on the Emergency Broadcast System or local radio news reports. No way, no how. We will continue to demand those responsible for our safety be able to communicate instantly and directly with us.
2) new devices will revolutionize this–or I should just say, Apple and RIM will revolutionize this, as they already have with the iphone and the blackberry. The ability of individuals to access critical information right now has grown exponentially in just the past year or so, and will continue to grow. Safety managers need to understand and respond to this growing capability with matching capability to use it for safety communication purposes.
3) As more proliferate, the “cry wolf” syndrome will increase–and the only answer is faster response, better rumor management and the ability of administrators to instantly counter the false information. Some are getting this and are creating that capability. Others probably never will–and it will bite them at some point. If this is true for universities, it is true for large cities and small towns, for large employers with lots of employees and even for the smallest operation.
The demands for instant, direct, transparent information continue to grow.