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Campuses rely on social security
Colleges use Facebook, texts to alert students of emergencies
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In the wake of the second fatal shooting at Virginia Tech in four years, text message, email, website and social media emergency alerts are becoming commonplace in colleges across the nation, and the area universities are no exception.

If a gunman were to walk onto Brenau University's campus, for example, students, faculty and staff would be alerted of the situation within seconds.

"After the first Virginia Tech incident (in 2007), we implemented a very good system that issues alerts via text, cell phone, email, Twitter, etc.," said David Morrison, vice president of communications and publications for Brenau. "You can also enroll land lines like your office phone or home phone. Everything can go out in a matter of seconds and the contact is almost simultaneous."

The system is Web-based and can be reached from any browser, including mobile applications for smart phones.

"We use it all the time for information about campus closing during an ice storm to alerts like we did the other day on the Gainesville campus when the hospital security folk discovered a ‘suspicious package' in a corridor," Morrison said.

The package turned out to be a stack of bricks taped together to create a doorstop. Morrison said as soon as he heard about it, he issued the alert for people to stay out of the area.

"My cell phone was ringing and text pinging and office phone ringing almost simultaneously," he said.

Both Lanier Technical College and Gainesville State College use text and email alerts for their systems, e2Campus and Laker Alert.

"That is an opt-in system, which means students choose whether they want to be in the system or not. They can choose to text to their phone, get an email or both," said Dave Parrish, director of marketing and public relations at Lanier Tech. "Most people say, ‘Send it to me both ways,' that way they're covered."

Parrish said Lanier Tech does not use social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to send emergency alerts. He said e2Campus is the official system for the college, open to all registered students and faculty.

Like Brenau's system, both e2Campus and Laker Alert have text messages and emails sent out in a matter of seconds.

"Email is considered our official means of communication. When we send a Laker Alert out, it goes to people's text messaging as well as email account," said Sloan Jones, director of public relations and marketing for Gainesville State.

"What I have found is people contact their friends and they do put things on Facebook and send things to friends."

She said all students get the email alerts, but they only get the text messages if they choose to receive them. When students opt in, they can add multiple phone numbers to receive texts so parents can get them as well.

"If I'm not sitting at my computer, I'm not going to get that email," Jones said. "I don't see many students on this campus who are not holding a phone or have quick access to a phone. (Text alerts) allow for that instantaneous distribution of information, which would even be faster than social media. They can be checking it on an iPhone but that text message is quick."

Jones said she's heard that even when a cell phone service is flooded and calls can't go through, text messages can.

"We do a drive at the beginning of each semester to encourage people to opt in," Jones said. "We never announce anything other than weather-related closings or an emergency situation. We consider a weather closing an emergency because we don't want people on the road."

Jones said the college does have several Facebook accounts, but does not use them for full-scale student contact.

"At this point, we've not had a situation where that was something we pursued," she said. "With this Virginia Tech thing, they put up a Facebook page and got information out that way. That's something I know our IT folks would be able to do, but this is what's working for us right now."

The Internet is used for emergency alerts via Gainesville State's homepage.

"If you're at our main webpage, there's an area that's not visible to us right now," Jones said.

"If we had a school closing or, God forbid, an active shooter, there's a designated area those can be placed in."

North Georgia College & State University also uses a text, phone and email alert system called ConnectED.

"It can send alerts by text message, by phone and by email," said Kate Maine, director of university relations for North Georgia. "On top of that, we do use Facebook. We've been using Facebook for about two years now as a supplement to those and in the past year we've begun using Twitter. ... We do use all of those methods as well as notifications on our primary website as well as any news and alerts the campus needs to be aware of."

Maine said were North Georgia to receive a tweet from a student reporting an emergency, the campus police would first check its legitimacy before the school sent an alert.

"We have a very transparent culture on our campus across the board and want to make sure people always have the information they need to react to certain situations," Maine said. "There would never be any hesitancy to send out information like that if indeed it were accurate or verified."

The school's Facebook and Twitter accounts are also used for nonemergency campus news, so everyone subscribed will receive both emergency and normal news.

Regular campus news, however, does not go out on ConnectED.

"That has come up before, where an office wants to get information out to the student body very quickly, but it's not necessarily an emergency," Maine said. "We don't want students and the rest of our campus community to become complacent about the use of that system."