By Caroline Jenkins Hanna 

To John Carter, chief of campus police at Amherst, the shootings at Virginia Tech last year drove home two points: that incomprehensible tragedies can occur on any campus at any time, and that, in the event of a crisis, getting the word out to everyone—quickly—can save lives.
So it was that last spring, campus police officers, administrators and IT staffers decided that the college’s emergency-communication plan needed an upgrade. Amherst signed on to a service that allows administrators to create, send and track personalized messages to students, faculty and staff at the click of a mouse. The college also mounted 13 high-powered horns on the roofs of dorms and other buildings across campus.

A test run took place on Nov. 30, 2007. At 9:53 a.m., e-mail and text messages appeared, phones rang, horns blared. In all, the college sent 3,144 voice messages, 3,803 e-mails and 902 texts. The voice mes­sages came to home phones, campus phones, cell phones and PDAs.

Phone calls and text messages—how most students opted to get the news—arrived without a hitch. E-mail took longer to show up, but Stephen Judycki, director of telecommunications and net­working, says the cause for delay was identified and corrected quickly. So far, 85 percent of students have provided administrators with at least one form of personal contact information; the goal is 100 percent.

Had it been a real crisis, the messages would have described the emergency and given instructions—to stay inside, for example, and to lock the doors.

Less than three months after the test, a former student at Northern Illinois University opened fire in a classroom there, killing five students and himself. “We are constantly reminding ourselves of the lessons of Virginia Tech and NIU,” Carter says, “and pushing ourselves—every day—to challenge the best practices of safety.”