New media and Virginia Tech

The role new media technology has to play in averting tragedies like Virginia Tech and in the afterm

When the words “Virginia Tech” come to mind, the first thing most people think of is tragedy and a year on from the 16 April shootings it is especially remembered.

In the shock immediately following the shootings, people were baffled as to how Cho Seung-Hui could have carried out his bloody spree over so many hours.

People wanted someone to blame and most came to the same conclusion: the university's communication to students was just not good enough.

The Virginia Tech experience clarified the need for new media technology that could have been used to notify students faster about the potential threat. Americans said the same thing after 9-11. After 9-11 many New Yorkers wanted a system that would contact people in affected areas en masse to let them know the situation. Companies like Send Word Now and Intelligent Wireless Solutions developed the capacity to alert people in businesses, universities or neighbourhoods who are signed up for the service using text messages, phone calls, messages to computer desktops, and emails. They also use the more traditional methods of radio announcements, loudspeakers and television announcements.

Before Virginia Tech few American universities had any sort of emergency alert system, but in the wake of the shootings, these systems are becoming more prevalent.

According to a recent survey only five per cent of universities said they used mobile phones in their emergency response before Virginia Tech but now more than 75% of the survey respondents said mobile phones are included.

There is also legislation under discussion that would require U.S. universities to issue “warnings in 30 minutes or less after an emergency”. While thankfully there has been no tragedy on the same scale in British university campuses, maybe the administrators should consider taking extra precautions and implementing these sorts of systems.

The UK has been slower moving in developing this type of new media emergency communications, even after the events of 7/7, but there are some steps in the right direction. CommunitySafe provides information in emergencies through pagers, SMS, phone calls, emails, and PDAs and even provides maps outlining the areas affected by the event.

On 7/7 “subscribers were notified six hours before the national press reported the incident”, the company claims. Another organisation involved in emergency messaging is Vocal, which has existed since 1998 but just started its emergency communications warnandinform system recently. Send Word Now has also implemented a global SMS plan to expand its communication services further.

While there is still fear that, in an actual disaster, systems may not function properly, it is still important to try to prepare for these situations, using the new media available. The emergency response systems should be commended for their help to the community and for exploring emergency technology.