which requires the immediate notification to campus communities upon confirmation of significant emergencies or dangerous situations1—alerting systems have been instituted at colleges and universities nationwide. The Virginia Tech Emergency Notification System (ENS) delivers text messages by way of SMS and e-mail and delivers voice messages by way of cellular and landline telephones. It also provides information on a Web site.2

In the workshop session on the current use of text messages for alerts and warnings, Barbara Childs-Pair, BDR, Inc. (and former director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency), gave a presentation on lessons learned during the rollout of the District of Columbia’s alerting system, and Michael Mulhare, Virginia Tech, discussed Virginia Tech’s experience with its campus alerting system. Darrell Darnell, White House Office for Critical Infrastructure Protection and Resilience Policy and Strategy, served as the session moderator. The sections that follow provide an integrated summary of these presentations and the discussions that followed, organized by topic. They draw on the Virginia Tech and District of Columbia examples to examine design, implementation, messaging, and operational aspects of alerting systems as they relate to the public response.


Virginia Tech’s system is opt-out—that is, employees are automatically enrolled, and students are enrolled when they register for classes unless they actively opt out of the system. Registrants can also provide up to three different telephone numbers at which they may be contacted. The system has approximately 55,000 subscribers, or about 85 percent of the student, faculty, and staff population.

DC Alerts is an opt-in system, with registration offered through a Web site. The system allows registrants to choose what types of alerts they want to receive—those involving severe weather, transportation disruptions, interruptions of utility services, government or school closings, AMBER Alerts, or other breaking news and information—and to limit alerts according to the time of day or neighborhood in which situations occur. Registrants can also sign up to see information for particular communities and districts regarding crime. (During registration, users can also ask to receive messages in Spanish.)

Characteristically for this system, DC Alerts registration can spike before major events. For example, in December 2008, the month before the presidential inauguration, there had been 30,000 subscribers; but just


Public Law 110-315.


The ENS is described in detail in Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Emergency Notification System Protocols, January 2010. Blacksburg, Va.

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