Getting the message

The College will implement a text message alert system beginning Nov. 16 to better prepare the campus community for emergency situations, in accordance with its Critical Incident Plan. Connect-ED, a private company that supplies emergency notification systems for colleges and universities, will provide the service for the College.

The emergency alert service will come at no direct cost to the campus community aside from standard text messaging rates.

According to Matt Golden, director of Media and Public Relations, the text message alert system will not be used to distribute general information to the campus community. The system will be used strictly for emergency alerts, timely warnings and notifications of weather-related campus closures.

“We’re viewing this as an emergency communication tool,” Golden said. “A lot of schools are using this to make general announcements, and I understand the utility of that.”

“However,” he added, “we believe that if we start sending out general announcements, then people are going to look at it like they were getting spam, and what we want this to be is if you get a text message from (the College), you know it’s important.”

Golden said the alert system will be open for subscription to all members of the campus community. Students will register for the alert system through TESS, and faculty and staff members will register through YESS.

The new system will allow for the registration of three numbers, including one SMS or text-enabled number, and two voice numbers.

“What we are going to require is that any student, faculty or staff person who wants to enroll must give us an SMS number, because we will always use the SMS number,” Golden said. “There may be instances where we don’t use the voice messaging component of the system, so that’s why we’re requiring the SMS number.”

Golden added that parents can also receive the College’s alerts, but they must be enrolled in the system by a student.

He said this will not only keep parents informed, but also indirectly encourage students to sign up for the voluntary program.

“One of the major hurdles with these systems is that you don’t get high enough enrollment,” Golden said. “We’re really trying to push it out there and let people know that it exists.”

The College is taking various steps to ensure a high enrollment in the new emergency alert system. Golden said a page has been created on the College’s Web site which explains the signup process in detail using screenshots.

Golden also said a mass e-mail will be sent out explaining the new system, in addition to an article that will appear in the TCNJ Update.

As of press time, Connect-ED plans to send out a mass text message to all those who have signed up for the service on Nov. 16, according to Golden. Caller ID functions will identify the source of the message as the College’s main phone number, (609) 771-1855.

Those wishing to confirm their subscription must reply to the message with either “Y TCNJ” or “Yes TCNJ,” Golden said. After Nov. 16, individual confirmation messages will be sent out as subscriptions are received.

Golden said he will be the primary operator of the alert system, which he can either operate from any available Internet connection or from his mobile device. Golden also said several other members of the administration have been trained to operate the system.

Golden said the messages will serve as a concise source of information that will refer students, staff and faculty to other elements of the College’s communication system, such as e-mail and the Web site.

Stock voice messages have also been pre-recorded to promote timely accessibility in the event of an emergency.

After the system is activated, a test period will follow. During this time, Golden said he would like to evaluate the effectiveness of the system.

“One of the things I’m thinking of doing . is taking the Pulse survey, or The Signal one, and basically announcing that we’re going to run a test of the system, we’d like you to go on and respond how quickly you received the message.”

Golden said the alert system does have a built-in timing mechanism to see how quickly alerts were received, but he would like to do an outside survey to establish a basis for comparison.

The alert system is expected to come at a cost to the College of $2 per student per year, with a $3,000 installation fee, Golden said.

After taking part in a conference with other higher education institutions, organized by NJEdge, a technology consortium that works primarily with state colleges and universities, the College selected the system provided by Connect-ED.

“We would have done it even if it was a lot more expensive,” Golden said. “If we had all the bells and whistles that were available, we were going to use it in the same way, just as an emergency communications tool. Getting those additional features wouldn’t have enhanced what we were going to do. We just wouldn’t have used them.”

On the other hand, Golden added, “We would not have taken a cheaper system that did not have everything we need.”

Students at the College were receptive to the implementation of the emergency alert system. Karen Custodio, junior biology major, said she thought the alert system would be well received by the campus community.

“It’s definitely a good idea,” Custodio said. “I’ve heard it worked at a lot of other schools.”

Custodio also said that the new alert system would give her parents piece of mind.

“I would probably just (sign up) for my parents’ sake,” she said. “My dad would definitely want me to. When they heard about the fake shooting, that was their first question: ‘How did you find out?'”

Yamina Nater, senior classical studies major, said she thought the text alert system would benefit the College, though she was uncertain as to whether or not students would enroll in the program.

“Here, nothing has really happened and I think unless something really big happens, not a lot of kids will sign up for it,” Nater said.

Nater said that the College should promote the system among freshmen and incoming freshman classes in order to increase enrollment.