University CIOs face demands to boost communications

The Virginia Tech shootings on April 16 have become a lightning rod for campus IT managers nationwide who are being asked to find new ways, some wirelessly, to communicate quickly with large and dispersed student bodies in an emergency.

“That unfortunate disaster has had a big effect on all colleges,” said Jay Dominick, CIO at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I’ve been in constant meetings since it happened to talk about ways we can better communicate on campus in such situations.”

Dominick spoke in an interview after an address at Computerworld’s Mobile & Wireless World in Orlando. Several university CIOs in attendance agreed that they are under scrutiny to bolster communications on their campuses after the shootings at Virginia Tech, which resulted in 33 deaths, including the shooter.

Various campus wireless technologies were discussed, including distributing data-capable wireless phones to college students to receive urgent voice and data messages and bolstering video surveillance systems over wireless networks.

“Virginia Tech officials were pilloried for taking two and a half hours to communicate the emergency, but I doubt there was a campus in the country that could do as well,” Dominick said. “I think they did a great job getting the word out. Most campuses wouldn’t even have the processes in place to know what things to do to respond to such an emergency within that amount of time.”

As a result of all the scrutiny, Dominick plans to decide in June whether to expand next fall a successful pilot program started last September with 100 students. Wake Forest and Cingular Wireless (now AT&T Inc.) sold the students Cingular 8125 phones for US$299 each, which were loaded with campus applications useful for classes and campus life and could function in Wi-Fi settings or under the Cingular cellular network. Cingular gave the students a 20 percent discount on voice and data plans as well.

The pilot worked fairly well but was expensive, and the devices and applications were complex for students to adapt to, he said. While the 8125s could be good for quick notifications through voice or text in emergencies, Dominick said rolling them out to 4,000 students by fall might not be possible. He said he might consider a simpler, less costly device instead.

“Cell phones are one good idea for handling emergencies, but you need other approaches, since we still won’t allow students to turn on phones during classes,” Dominick said. Even putting a phone in a vibrate mode might not be enough of an alert in an emergency, he said.

At St. John’s University in New York, additional big-screen monitors that would provide emergency information may be installed in common areas and classroom buildings, said Joseph Tufano, CIO at the 20,000-student institution, which has four campuses.

“We’d done several things prior to Virginia Tech, but there are many things to be learned from that tragedy,” Tufano said.

“Voice and text messaging alerts to cell phones are a good idea, but not everybody has one, and we do turn them off in classes,” he said.

St. John’s in the past year added 10 security cameras running over a wireless network to remote areas of its campuses, bringing the total to 258. IBM consultants helped upgrade an older videotape security system to one that is digital but still uses the older digital cameras to save costs. The new system allows quick searches of stored images and will be upgraded to allow for digital searches of license plates read by cameras at entry points, he said.

Facial recognition software is a future possibility, and the campus may explore using software that would detect unusual movements seen by surveillance cameras, such as a single person entering an auditorium as a crowd is leaving, Tufano added.

But technology is not the only answer, and good emergency response processes and knowledgeable security personnel are vital, Tufano added. St. John’s has two former senior New York Police Department officials in charge of campus security, “and they know their stuff,” he added.